Swing State Pres

Sunday, February 2, 2020

BTRTN: No Guardrails, No Restraint…No John McCain, No John Bolton

Tom with the BTRTN January Month in Review. 

THE LEAD

·        At the beginning of the month of January, with Nancy Pelosi executing her “not quite yet” mode of withholding the articles of impeachment from the Senate seeking leverage over the Senate trial, attention shifted to the volatile Middle East.

·        Trump ordered the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani of Iran in retaliation for an attack on U.S. troops, selecting the most aggressive option on the table, with flimsy and inconsistent justification, resulting in further destabilization in the smoldering Middle East.

Free January Printable Calendar 2020
·        With potentially far-reaching unintended consequences mounting daily – beyond simply a retaliatory bombing of a U.S. base, but also including the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet in the fog of war, U.S. troop escalation in the region, a halt to the ISIS battle by suddenly overburdened troops, an Iraqi Parliament vote to eject the U.S. from Iraq, and two further bombings of the U.S. Embassy – it was clear that Trump’s entire Iranian strategy was literally blowing up in his face.

·        Back to the impeachment, Pelosi’s gambit, as it unfolded, failed to influence McConnell’s trial rules, but succeeded in spotlighting the issue of what constituted a “fair trial,” and the witness controversy became the central drama of the ensuing trial.

·        Not unexpectedly, given the newness of the case, with the month came more revelations that cemented the storyline, featuring Lev Parnas, Rudy Giuliani’s man in Ukraine, and culminating with The New York Times’ story that John Bolton, in the manuscript of an upcoming book, confirmed that Trump had told Bolton directly that the release of military aid was completely dependent on a Ukraine President Zelensky announcement of Biden/Burisma/Hilary Clinton server investigations.

·        The Senate trial featured a highly effective, just-the-facts-and-logic story of the quid pro quo that led to the abuse of power article, and of Trump’s obstruction of Congress that sought to derail the investigation of that charge, wrapped in impassioned pleas to GOP Senators led by the loquacious House Manager Adam Schiff to abide by the Constitution, protect the separation of powers, and remove Trump from office.

·        Senate Republicans filled their airtime with the kitchen sink, offering every wackydoodle defense of Trump imaginable, from denial (it never happened) to “so what” (sure it happened but is not impeachable) – even the incredible defense that if Trump felt his reelection was in the national interest, then anything to achieve that aim was fair.

·        And the month culminated with the drama of whether the Senate would call John Bolton as a witness, echoing the tension of the Obamacare votes that hinged on a small set of moderate Republicans, which featured the final thumbs down of John McCain.  But Lamar Alexander and Lisa Murkowsky opted for no witnesses,setting the stage for the acquittal for Trump to open February, ending the sham of a trial that failed to hear evidence from eyewitnesses to the charges. 


THE MONTH

It is hard to find a more consequential month during the Trump presidency than January, 2020.

The fear about Trump all along, but in particular in the “post-guardrail period,” is that, when confronted with a true international crisis, Trump would inadvertently trigger war through an ill-considered action.  When John Kelly, Jim Mattis, Rex Tillerson and others were in the administration, regardless of their shortcomings, one could reliably count on a policy of “Trump containment” winning the day, and the troika working hard to preserve order based on the architecture that had persisted since the end of World War II. 

Near the end of December, Iraqi’s stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad, screaming “Death to America”, in protest of an American air raid that killed 24 members of an Iranian-based militia, which itself was a response to an attack by that militia that resulted in the death of a U.S. contractor.  

The dreaded moment had arrived, Trump facing a crisis, surrounded by yes-men.  He was presented with a range of options.  His aides put forward a standard array that ranged in aggressiveness, designed to steer Trump, in this case, to the proper solution, somewhere between the endpoints.  For Trump it was a particularly unhappy choice.  Trump was infuriated by the Embassy protest and its obvious echo of the hostage-taking in Iran back in 1979.  He would thus naturally avoid “weaker” options that might invite comparisons to Jimmy Carter, but, on the other hand, he also desperately wanted to avoid escalating Middle East hostilities, which he accurately reasoned could damage his re-election chances.

Disdaining the caution that had typified his own previous instincts (e.g., calling off a bombing raid of Iran in June, 2020 with just minutes to go), Trump stunned his military advisers by taking the most aggressive option, to kill Soleimani, the second most powerful official in Iraq, caving to his own macho instincts.  The deed was done, quickly and efficiently, and all hell broke loose.

On the U.S. front, there were immediate questions about the justification for such an extreme tact­ical choice.  At first, Trump and his advisers took the line that a major threat to U.S. personnel in the region was “imminent” and that taking Soleimani out was the only way to prevent it.  But of course this makes little sense, as such threats, even if factually apparent, can be carried out without the general.  And, as it turned out, that evidence was far from factually apparent.  Defense Secretary Mark Esper ultimately conceded that he saw no intelligence to support Trump’s claim that four U.S. embassies faced imminent danger, so that initial rationale went by the boards.  And it devolved from there, leading to a rationale that “Soleimani is a terrorist who has killed many Americans” – certainly true, but both Bush and Obama had recognized the destabilizing and potentially war-inducing possibility inherent in such a move, so why would Trump now take that drastic step?

As the month moved along, the justification became more confused, less compelling, and downright childish.  Trump ultimately told a roomful of lapdog donors that Soleimani “was saying bad things about our country” and “how much of this shit do we have to listen to?  Thus our sophisticated geo-political calculus had been reduced to a thought process worthy of a third grade playground.  No Mattis, no Tillerson, no Kelly.  And Trumps response placed us on the edge of war.  Where Mattis, Tillerson and Kelly might have swayed Trump, their Three Stooges replacements, Esper, Pompeo and Mulvany, have no appetite for dissent.

On the global front, events spun out of control.  The Iranians responded in a measured fashion, bombing a U.S. military base but with a warning to minimize casualties (no one was killed).  The Iraqi Parliament voted to eject U.S. troops from the country, obviously a destabilizing move.  Our forces engaged in the fight against ISIS had to put that on hold.  Trump sent 3,000 troops into the region, totally at odds with his stated policy and his promises to reduce the U.S. presence in the region.  And bombings continue, including two shellings of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in the last week. 

Let us not forget that the Iranian madness is entirely of Trump’s doing.  It began with yet another impulsive, ill-considered decision, to withdraw America from the Iranian nuclear weapons deal.  Trump campaigned on his conclusion that the deal was a terrible one, since it strengthened Iran’s economy, only limited nuclear production for 15 years, and was silent on the issue of Iran’s support of terrorism in the region.   Trump argued that the better strategy would be to withdraw from the deal, place maximum economic sanctions on Iran, and watch the Iraqis come crawling back to the negotiating table.

But, of course, they refused to follow that script, as most anyone who opined on the matter forecasted.  Instead, the Iranians embarked on a series of aggressive “asymmetric” military actions that escalated the odds of war – and on top of those ship seizures and bombings, they resumed the enriching of uranium.  So now, instead of some measure of peace and a 15-year halt of a nuclear threat, a pact that was clearly enforceable and working, we now have chaos, the threat of war, and no more 15-year window.  Nice job.


But most of the Iranian aftermath (including those recent shellings of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad) was completely overshadowed by the historic Senate trial of Trump.  The month began with Pelosi still holding up the articles of impeachment from transmission to the Senate, demanding a negotiation with McConnell to insure a fair Senate trial, complete with documents and witnesses.  McConnell more or less ignored her, continually restating his contention that the decision on whether to hear witnesses should occur after the opening statements from each side, relying on the Clinton impeachment precedent.

Of course, this ignored two central concepts.  One was that all of the relevant witnesses had already testified in the Clinton House impeachment inquiry, whereas Trump, of course, had forbid any of his inner circle – eyewitnesses to his Ukraine decision-process – from testifying.  And the second was that the Clinton trial had indeed included witnesses, so if precedent should hold, would that not dictate having them in Trump’s trial as well?

This debate went on for weeks, and received enormous airtime.  And by the time Pelosi sent over the articles, the drama of the witnesses was front and center, as it was truly the only aspect of the trial that was not pre-ordained.

Then came a steady stream of new evidence.  First there were emails that clearly showed that OMB official Michael Duffy ordered the freezing of the military aid to Ukraine a mere 91 minutes after the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call.  Then it emerged that Pompeo, Bolton and Esper had tried to prevail upon Trump to release the aid in late August (and failed yet again).  Then a raft of incriminating evidence was unleashed by Giuliani fixer Lev Parnas, detailing the reputation-hit job on Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yavonovitch (including, ultimately, a tape of Trump giving orders, a la Don Corleone, to “take her out”), and documented evidence of Giuliani telling Zelensky that he represented Trump on the investigation matters, and much more.  The non-partisan General Administration Office (GAO) then concluded that Trump’s withholding of aid for a political purpose was, in fact, illegal.  All of this raised the pressure on the GOP to admit evidence and hear witnesses as each side prepared to make its case.

The Democrats made their case in impressive fashion, which even the reddest of red state Senators, Jim Inhofe of Idaho, was forced to admit that “Schiff is very, very effective.”   Schiff, the lead House manager of the trial, raised his profile from dogged Trump pursuer to folk hero and future of the party with his brilliant defense.  Schiff presented a first-rate prosecution, complete with timeline, logic and facts, combined will emotional appeals to our better angels, and Obama-esque oration.  He and his managers were devastating in their three days of presentation.

The GOP side was underwhelming.  The “defense” mostly consisted of an ad nauseum, non-fact based fixation on Hunter Biden, and also included ridiculous tidbits such as:  the House never had authorization to conduct an impeachment inquiry, Obama did worse, Trump eventually released the aid, and Trump eventually did meet with Zelensky, among many other logic-challenged bullet points.

Two particular defenses were particularly strained.  The first one, offered by Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, was that “abuse of power” and “obstruction of Congress” were “too vague” as standards, and failed to qualify as “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which Dershowitz claimed must involve the breaking of a law.  In other words, he argued, even if Trump was guilty as charged, he could not be impeached.  Dershowitz was relying on an argument that equated “maladministration” (a synonym of “mismanagement”) with “abuse of power,” although they are obviously completely different. 

Watching Jeffrey Toobin shred Dershowitz to his face in a side-by-side discussion was both immensely satisfying and a bit sad.  Toobin pointed out, correctly, that Dershowitz was alone among constitutional scholars in his reliance on a presence of a crime standard.  Dershowitz said he was not alone, and cited a fellow Harvard Professor, Nicholas Buoy, who had agreed with his opinion on “maladministration” in a Washington Post column.  Toobin pointed out that while that was true, the entire thrust of the rest of Buoy’s article, and its purpose, was to argue that Dershowitz’s overall argument was “dead wrong,” and that hearing Dershowitz citing it for support was a bit odd.  Dershowitz later added the Orwellian argument that since Trump thought his election was crucial to the well-being to the nation, anything he did to achieve that end was in bounds.

As lame as the GOP defense arguments were, the one that immediately proved most problematic was the assertion that there was no direct evidence that Trump was behind the quid pro quo, since none of the House witnesses heard him say it firsthand, and the ones who may have were not allowed to testify.  But then came the stunning revelation, courtesy of the New York Times, after the Democrats had made their case.  The Times reported that a manuscript of a forthcoming John Bolton memoir confirmed directly, in Bolton’s own words, that Trump had told him the Ukraine military aid was completely dependent on the Biden/Burisma/Clinton investigations – the quid pro quo confirmed in full by a direct eyewitness. 

This bombshell, of course, undercut that central Trump defense.  No more need to rely on second hand sources, the career diplomates, for their inferences on policy, no matter how voluminous and consistent they were.   The revelation thus upset the “witness” calculus.  At the time of the revelation, the only Republican Senators calling for witnesses were Mitt Romney and Susan Collins, leaving the Democrats two short of holding a controlling majority on the question.  And the general assessment was that it would be up to moderates Lisa Murkowski and Lamar Alexander to determine the outcome.

While those Senators remained mum, the trial proceeded to the particularly dispiriting “questions” phase.  Far from an opportunity for “cross examination,” both sides tossed softball set-up questions to their own lawyers, to better drive home points long since made dozens of times.

Finally, Lamar Alexander indicated, via a statement released right after the questions phase (and before the day devoted to the question of witnesses) that he would not vote for witnesses, offering the following rationale:  “The Constitution does not give the Senate the power to remove the president from office and ban him from this year’s ballot simply for actions that are inappropriate.”   (This is precisely where BTRTN predicted the GOP would land in an article we wrote on November 3, 2019:  “The Senate will acquit, largely along party lines, and GOP senators will use the following logic to justify their position:  ‘Trump did offer a quid pro quo to Ukraine, and that was indeed poor judgment, out of bounds and, yes, an abuse of power.  But it does not rise to an impeachable offense.’ “)  With his own version of “thumbs down,” Alexander thus squandered his opportunity to join John McCain in registering a crucial, courageous anti-party vote as a capper to his career (Alexander is retiring from the Senate this year.)

The following morning, Murkowski followed with the same conclusion, albeit with a different rationale.  She offered a damning self-indictment:  Given the partisan nature of this impeachment from the very beginning and throughout, I have come to the conclusion that there will be no fair trial in the Senate. I don't believe the continuation of this process will change anything. It is sad for me to admit that, as an institution, the Congress has failed.”  The Senate surely did, and perhaps Alexander and Murkowski herself, most of all. 

Many Senators fell in line with the Alexander argument, that the Democrats had in fact proven the quid pro quo, but while the action was “inappropriate” it was not “impeachable.” 

The GOP has shamed itself in this process.  They have backpedaled at every step, continuingly lowering the standard for Trump to clear, moving the goalposts well out of the stadium, in effect strapping them to a spaceship and sending them off to explore the universe.  Essentially they are left with this:  “OK, he did it, but we’re not going to impeach him for it.”  And Alan Dershowitz handed them the legal cover to endorse that position.

And thus dies the Constitution.  The enduring question from this sad process will linger on in history:  if the quid pro quo, which compromised foreign policy with deep significance in a crucial geo-political region and war zone for personal gain, is not an impeachable offense, what is?

Some GOP Senators will have to answer for their decisions at the ballot box in November, including vulnerable senators Martha McSally of Arizona, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Thom Tillis of North Carolina – and Mitch McConnell himself in Kentucky, who currently is one of the lowest rated Senators in favorability, deeply underwater at 50% disapprove, 37% approve. 

There was one last twist.  It has been presumed as an article of faith that Trump wished to be acquitted before his State of the Union on February 4, and it was believed that only the introduction of witnesses could derail McConnell’s plan to bring this home.  But the final timetable, allowing for closing statements and an explanation of each Senator’s vote, pushed the presumed acquittal to Wednesday, February 5.

And there is one last drama:  will any senators cross party-lines on the acquittal?  It seems unlikely that Romney or Collins will do so, so all eyes are on Democrats in red states, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Krystyn Sinema of Arizona, and Doug Jones of Alabama.   None have tipped their hand as of the end of the month.


Other news of the month was almost completely submerged to the Iraq/Iran/impeachment headliners, including Trump’s Phase One China deal, the signing of the USMCA (to which Trump, showing world class pettiness, did not invite any of the Democrats who led the treaty process and gave Trump a victory, putting country above political self-interest), to the signing ceremony.  There was also the grand unveiling of the long-awaited Jared Kushner Israel-Palestine peace plan, which, oddly, was trumpeted as a victory despite the fact that the Palestinians had not as yet been involved in any negotiations at all, and promptly rejected it, as did the Arab League.  The House also approved a significant war powers limit on Trump, which appeared to have majority support of the Senate.


MONTHLY MADNESS

We also feature, in this monthly review, a section we call “madness” which this administration never fails to produce.  The Soleimani killing rationale (“he said bad things about us”) certainly falls within this category, and we offer several others as well.

First, the retaliatory bombing by Iran of a U.S. military base did not result in any deaths, but the military announced that 64 soldiers had suffered “traumatic brain injury.”  Trump dismissed these as “headaches,” which caused many to wonder how any military family could possibly support him.  (Even in WWII times, PTSD, or “shell-shock” was recognized as a medical condition; George Patton was sidelined for a year for slapping soldiers he found receiving treatment for the condition.) This critique from a man who faked bone spurs to avoid the draft.

And finally, a poll conducted among GOP voters asked who they would consider voting for in the 2024 presidential election.  The results were as follows:

Mike Pence (40%)
Donald Trump, Jr. (29%)
Nikki Haley (26%)
Ivanka Trump (16%)
Marco Rubio (15%)
Mike Pompeo (13%)
Greg Abbott (13%)

We’ll stop there, because we assume you are already physically ill.


TRUMP APPROVAL RATING

Through this epic month that contained both an ill-considered, potential war-provoking hit job, and an utterly damning Senate trial, Trump’s approval rating did not budge, averaging 44% for the month.  This is the 25th consecutive month that his approval rating was in the 40-45% range.  War? Impeachment?  When it comes to Trump, everyone’s mind is made up.

TRUMP MONTHLY APPROVAL RATING

2017
2018
2019
2020

Ja
Jn
Ja
Jn
Ja
F
M
A
M
Jn
Jl
A
S
O
N
D
Ja
Approve
45
40
41
42
42
41
42
42
43
43
43
43
44
43
43
44
44
Disappr.
44
55
55
53
54
55
54
54
54
54
54
53
53
55
55
54
54
Net
1
-15
-13
-10
-12
-14
-11
-12
-11
-12
-11
-10
-9
-13
-12
-10
-10


ON IMPEACHMENT

There was no change in the percentage of Americans who support impeachment versus not.  America now is solidly in favor of impeachment, by a margin of 49/47.  American remains wildly divided on the subject by party, with 84% of Democrats supporting, versus only 9% of Republicans.  The independents fall squarely in the middle at 43%.

VIEWS ON IMPEACHMENT
2019
Mar
Apr
May
Jun
Jul
Aug
Sep
Oct
Nov
Dec
Jan
Support
45
37
39
39
38
39
47
48
49
48
49
Don't Support
45
54
50
52
51
53
46
44
44
46
47












Support among
Mar
Apr
May
Jun
Jul
Aug
Sep
Oct
Nov
Dec
Dec
Democrats
66
63
70
69
67
70
79
84
84
82
84
Independents
33
31
33
35
33
34
43
46
45
42
43
Republicans
10
8
10
9
8
9
12
11
12
10
9
Source:  FiveThirtyEight









GENERIC BALLOT

But while support for impeachment was unchanged, the gap in the generic ballot narrowed.  While the Democrats still hold a significant lead, +5 points, that is down materially from the +7 to +9 point range that it has held over the last half year or so.  If this +5 differential was the margin on Election Day, our BTRTN model indicates the Dems could pick up roughly 5 to 10 more seats to add to their dominant position.

GENERIC BALLOT

2019
2020
Jun
Jul
Aug
Sep
Oct
Nov
Dec
Jan
Democrats
45
46
47
47
47
47
48
45
Republicans
39
38
38
39
39
39
41
41
Net Margin
7
8
9
8
7
7
8
5


TRUMPOMETER

The Trumpometer improved a tad from December to January, from +14 to +16.  The +16 Trumpometer reading means that, on average, our five economic measures are +16% higher than they were at the time of Trump’s Inauguration, per the chart below (and with more explanation of methodology below).  The increase in the Trumpometer was driven by a modest drop in the price of gasoline, and an improvement in consumer confidence.   

The “Trumpometer” was designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  The Trumpometer now stands at +16, which means that Donald Trump can definitively claim that the answer to that question is “yes.”  (Whether he deserves credit for that score is another matter.)


Clinton
Bush
Obama
Trump
TRUMPOMETER
End Clinton  1/20/2001
End Bush 1/20/2009
End Obama 1/20/2017 (Base = 0)
Trump 12/31/2019
Trump 1/31/2020
% Chg. Vs. Inaug. (+ = Better)
Trumpometer
25
-53
0
14
16
16%







  Unemployment Rate
4.2
7.8
4.7
3.5
3.5
26%
  Consumer Confidence
129
38
114
127
132
16%
  Price of Gas
1.27
1.84
2.44
2.66
2.60
-7%
  Dow Jones
10,588
8,281
19,732
28,538
28,256
43%
  GDP
4.5
-6.2
2.1
2.1
2.1
0%




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Notes on methodology:

BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters.  The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.

For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.

The Trumpometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Trump Inaugural on January 20, 2017, on an average percentage change basis... The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump took office.  The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline, and the GDP. 








3 comments:

  1. There are a few instances where you refer to Iranians as Iraqis and vice versa. Might be worth a second proof for this part of the article, as it undermines your message and raises doubt about your understanding of the situation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi thanks. I found one such typo and corrected it. I hope that was it!

      Delete
  2. If all of the players leave the field, there is no game. Congress always tests for support of everything they do. The Democrats in this case may well succumb to the snug feeling that "they are the only ones who can do something" about this corrupt and terrible uneducated administration, then rest on their laurels to wait for another round after reelection. In this way the "revolution" becomes respectable. The House wanted to call witnesses, and the Senate blocked that; if the House really insists on witnesses, then the Senate must listen --- they have no other choice. So the dangerous precedent would be if the House lamely accepted what the Senate dishes out.

    ReplyDelete

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