Friday, October 12, 2018

The red non-wave

IN THE WAKE of the divisive confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to be a justice on the Supreme Court, the emerging pre-election Republican catechism states that conservatives and the Republican base are “energized,” “awakened” or (borrowing a phrase that originated with President Obama) “fired up” and ready for the vote 26 days from today.

That renewed sense of the possible is reinforced by new polling that shows the storied “enthusiasm gap” — that ephemeral snapshot of voter passion, rather than voter conviction — has narrowed, with more Republican voters now champing at the bit to go to the polls in November.

But several things complicate that rosy picture for the GOP. The first is that rhetoric from conservative analysts and pundits suggests a course of action that would play out even if Republican voters weren’t “energized” about the midterms. As a rule, Republican voters don’t stay at home on Election Day. It’s one of their defining characteristics.

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An internal survey conducted in September for the Republican National Committee, and obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek, came to that conclusion: “Republicans don’t have a ‘base problem.’ Those voters who strongly approve of the President and those who support both his policies and leadership style are genuinely passionate about voting in the election and are voting GOP lock, stock and barrel.”

Consider the research of Karl Rove, Bush 43 senior adviser, writing in 2015 in The Wall Street Journal: “The number of self-identified conservative voters rose to about 45.2 million in 2012 from 30.6 million in 2000. And the number of conservatives voting for the Republican presidential candidate rose to about 37.1 million in 2012 from 25.1 million in 2000.”

It’s an American political truism: Republican voters show up. GOP voters tend to be older, whiter, wealthier and more traditional by every conventional metric. For them, voting is a civic reflex; not voting is not an option.

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THAT UNDERCUTS the building narrative of a red wave of apparently undiscovered voters in November. Republican strategists are talking about the same body of voters that presumably wasn’t “fired up” before. Those GOP voters were going to show up anyway, “fired up” or not. They always have and probably always will.

So the talk that these newly galvanized conservative voters are somehow separate and distinct from less impassioned voters already planning to vote is to conjure a distinction without a difference. The narrowed “enthusiasm gap” between Dems and Republicans is a hollow measurement because it implies a difference between one group of Republican voters and another, when in fact it’s the same cohort of voters.

The second thing complicating the red-wave vision is the long-time imbalance between registered Democrats and registered Republicans, a numerical fact of our politics that’s endured for years. To go by party registration, there are more Democrats in the electorate than Republicans, and as many or more independent voters than either Democrats or Republicans. And a party affiliation study the Pew Research Center released last month found that Democrats enjoyed an advantage, by a lot or a little, among independent voters asked to describe which way they “lean.”

A similar Pew survey in September 2016 found much the same thing. “Overall, 48% of all registered voters identify as Democrats or lean Democratic compared with 44% who identify as Republican or lean toward the GOP.” The Pew report found favorable associations with Democrats and the Democratic cause among women, college graduates, millennials, Gen-Xers, minority voters, Jewish voters, the religiously unaffiliated, and white voters with post-graduate experience.

It’s contrarian, to say the least, to assume that this ongoing trend will reverse or mitigate itself for the midterm elections.

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THIRD: DESPITE how politically inflamed and culturally combustible the Republican base might be, that base isn’t growing appreciably in size, not getting bigger or wider in the numbers it needs to sustain itself. Various Republican seers have couched this as an election that's “neck and neck,” a characterization that ignores not just the politics of the moment, but also the reality of the nation, on the broader scale of the national time.

With every election cycle, midterm or general, the Republicans are doubling down on a population of voters that’s shrinking as older voters die and younger voters less committed to (or more alienated from) the Republican agenda drift away — either to join the Democrats or to share the status of independent voters.

The Brookings Institution observed this in June: “A political party that can’t attract young people, especially in a generation that is as big as the Millennial generation—America’s largest demographic group—is not a party with a very bright future. So although Trump, while focusing on the base, has made the Republican Party his, come November it may not be as much of an advantage.”

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The fourth matter is specific to this election cycle, and may be the most important. The outcome of the Kavanaugh exercise in naked political greed has left women voters raw and righteously angry. It’s a safe bet that if rank & file Republicans are energized, vast numbers of women across the demographic spectrum are even more so: dismayed at how their life stories, their collective histories could be so blithely ignored by a Republican president many of them helped to elect, and a Republican congressional leadership they supported by association.

There’s not a reason on earth to expect them to forget what’s just happened with the Kavanaugh affair. And with a multitude of female candidates (many of them Democrats) mounting serious bids for a variety of offices, including House and Senate, those woman voters have choices now that they didn’t have before. They’ve got the option to vote for candidates that reflect and share their struggles and experiences.

Sure as the sunrise, they’ll be exercising that option in droves less than four weeks from today.

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The latest polling bears these points out. CNN’s newest poll results, released on Tuesday, find the Democrats holding a 30-point advantage with women voters, with 63 percent of women planning to vote for Democratic candidates. When asked their impression of the newest Supreme Court justice, only 29 percent of women voters in the survey had a positive impression of Kavanaugh, compared to a 53 percent negative impression.

Disdain for the Republicans isn’t gender specific. That same CNN survey finds Democrats of either gender with a 13-point bulge over Republicans in a generic House ballot. And the “enthusiasm gap”? If you believe in it, there’s other polling that shows how durably granular, state by state, that disdain has been so far.

According to the latest Marist Poll for Wisconsin, a battleground for real, “three in four registered voters statewide, including 87% of Democrats and 79% of Republicans, say they consider this year’s midterm elections to be very important.”

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IT'S MUCH the same in Nevada. Marist’s new (Oct. 10) survey for the state found sentiment that’s demographically panoramic in a way that should give Republicans pause. “Voters under the age of 45 (60%), women, (60%), and white voters with a college degree (52%) are among those most likely to say they plan to send a message that more Democrats are needed to balance the power of President Trump.”

This election season has had its share of prognosticators debating the likelihood of waves red and blue, but few have the gravitas of Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, and a longtime veteran of many an election. Sabato said it plain this week on MSNBC.

“I think they know that even if the Republicans hold the senate, given the very pro-Republican map that exists, President Trump is in trouble in some of these states,” Sabato said. “He’s fallen considerably in approval, and the Midwest as a whole seems to be flipping in the midterm year. The states that he carried are getting ready, it appears to either elect Democratic senators or Democratic governors, or both.”

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“Those tariffs seem to be hurting people in the Midwest more than other regions,” Sabato said Tuesday. “The Midwesterners may not react as well to some of the things President Trump says and does. ... This also reminds us that 2016 was a choice. It wasn’t simply that people decided to vote for Donald Trump in a vacuum. Many of them were voting against Hillary Clinton. Maybe you dispute the premise of it, but essentially it’s a two-pronged decision. ...

“If there’s ever been an abnormal presidency, we’re in it. Trump has violated so many of the rules of politics and so many of the norms of politics, that we hesitate to say, ‘well, history shows us that X will happen, therefore it will happen under Trump ...

“But ... a red wave ain’t gonna happen. It’s just a question of how big the blue wave is. It could be a tsunami, it could be a middle-sized wave, it could be a small wave but there’s going to be a blue wave ...”

Image credits: Party affiliation chart and logo: © 2018 Pew Research Center.  Kavanaugh: tk.  CNN logo" © 2018 CNN. Marist Poll logo: © 2018 Marist Institute for Public Opinion.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

‘Indelible in the hippocampus’:
Kavanaugh and America

IT WAS the closest thing this country’s had to a communal experience about men and women and power and rape, and we got it the way we seem to like it, boiled down, distilled, soundbitten for your convenience. It was all over the country, on smartphones and tablets, watched on subways and airline seatbacks, cafes and bars. We tuned into it collectively; it was like what people did back in the wartime forties, when everyone’s radio was tuned to the heavyweight championship fight. It was an event, it was a moment, it was history. It was everything, everything, except a conversation.

A great fight card came together on Sept. 27, and for the promoters responsible for the bout, collectively called the Senate Judiciary Committee, it was all pretty much a sure thing. Some palooka outta California, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, dared to go up against the golden boy, Brett Michael Kavanaugh. This was gonna be good.

That, more or less, was the expectation. When it was over, the calculus by which Americans suspended their disbelief had changed — the doctor from Cali won on points with them, going away — but the machinations of a ruthlessly partisan Republican congressional leadership were consistent to the end.

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Now, with “Justice Kavanaugh” as a phrase we’ll be saddled with for the indefinite future, you can’t help but look back at how we got here. Even with a short-term perspective of days and weeks, we can see how this was more than the agony of memory, legislative agendas and jockeying for political leverage. The enduring power of the Kavanaugh affair isn’t found in its literality, in what it was. What will endure is what it means and what it says: about this nation, its future, its women and its people.

Blasey, who spoke first before the committee, was asked by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy to recall and describe the strongest memory from the night that Kavanaugh allegedly assaulted her. She did so, introducing a word that imparted a forensic poetry to what would become an otherwise brutal recitation of conservative grievance.

“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” Blasey said, voice breaking as she described her victimization. “The uproarious laughter between the two. They're having fun at my expense.”

The word “hippocampus” refers to the ridges in the lateral ventricles of the human brain, and is believed to be the seat of memory and emotion tin the human body, but she might as well have been talking about something bigger, wider, more national in scope. She could be referencing the national memory bank.

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ONE THING for sure: The memory bank of the Democratic leadership wasn’t working. The effort to stop Kavanaugh was hampered by too long and deep a look in the rear-view mirror. Blasey’s allegations were utterly necessary to be heard; the FBI investigation that ensued deserved more than the limits imposed by the Trump White House, operational handcuffs that rendered that investigation almost nonexistent in real terms.

But the bid to stop Kavanaugh’s appointment was one-dimensional. From almost the beginning, the Democrats framed the possible confirmation of Kavanaugh as a battle against the judge as a teenager who got away with sexual assault, as a juvenile whose escapades were possibly criminal. Over time, it seemed, there was no other calculus, nothing else of any importance to be brought to bear in the discussion. Kavanaugh’s situational tolerance for women and their reproductive rights was the crux of the debate.

Not enough was said during or after the hearings about Kavanaugh’s proven occasions with perjury: His embroideries at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s most recent hearing, and at hearings in 2004 and 2006.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Kavanaugh: Trump backs away

A FEW MONTHS ago, it was all going according to plan. President* Trump had anointed his golden boy, Brett Michael Kavanaugh, to be the next Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Trump had already praised Kavanaugh to the skies. “Judge Kavanaugh has impeccable credentials, unsurpassed qualifications and a proven commitment to equal justice under the law,” Trump said from the East Room of the White House, on July 9.

Kavanaugh, a judge with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, did the walkabout to lawmakers’ offices on Capitol Hill as if ordained. They did everything but trot him around in a sedan chair. “We're going to have a thorough process. Hopefully it's efficient, we get it done quickly,” said Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the committee chairman. “In the end, I think his record will speak for itself.”

But things have changed. Thanks to allegations from (at this writing) no fewer than five presumably credible accusers, including Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning, Sept. 27 — and the nominee’s own previous embroideries of the truth, the Supreme Court nomination of Kavanaugh is in trouble.

If you wanted to confirm that, read the statements from the man who nominated him, Trump himself. Read closely.

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On Twitter on Sept. 24, at the UN General Assembly in New York, Trump called Kavanaugh “a wonderful man, and a man who has the potential to be one of our greatest Supreme Court Justices ever.”

Trump called Kavanaugh “a fine man with an unblemished past and these are highly unsubstantiated statements from people represented by lawyers,” adding later that it would “be sad indeed” if he’s prevented from serving on the nation’s highest court.

Note the hedging, conditional language there: Kavanaugh is “a man who has the potential” to join the court, and it would “be sad indeed” if he didn’t.

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IF THAT wasn’t enough, on Wednesday, Sept. 26, the president* was asked about whether he might be persuaded to withdraw Kavanaugh's nomination. Trump said: “If I thought he was guilty of something like this ... yeah, sure.”

And he spoke about the hearings that have just started. “I'm going to see what happens tomorrow. I'm going to be watching,” Trump said. “I'm going to see what's said. It's possible they will be convincing.”

“You know what? I can be persuaded also,” Trump continued. “I can't tell you if they're liars until I hear them. ... I can be convinced of anything.”

I can be persuaded. I can be convinced of anything. You don’t need to put the message on a sandwich board for it to be perfectly clear: Kavanaugh’s status in jeopardy and The Don is throwing him under the bus in slow motion.

Much will depend on how well Blasey Ford performs; sometimes the best laid plans of witnesses come undone under the withering glare of a Senate committee. But if the doctor is even remotely credible in her full testimony, and she probably will be, Trump would do well to start doing what for him has been unimaginable: Imagining some other candidate for the Supreme Court.

Image credits: Kavanaugh: via The Root.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Another matter entirely:
Brett Kavanaugh's new brush with the past

MUCH OF the current hue and cry over Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s possible confirmation to the United States Supreme Court hinges on his credibility in the face of allegations from Christine Blasey Ford, a California college professor and research psychologist, concerning an alleged sexual assault back in the 80’s, when she was a student at Holton-Arms School and Kavanaugh was a student at Georgetown Preparatory School, in Maryland.

By now, courtesy of Emma Brown’s Sept. 16 story in The Washington Post, you know the particulars: “Earlier this summer, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford wrote a confidential letter to a senior Democratic lawmaker alleging that Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her more than three decades ago, when they were high school students in suburban Maryland. ...

“Ford said that one summer in the early 1980s, Kavanaugh and a friend — both ‘stumbling drunk,’ Ford alleges — corralled her into a bedroom during a gathering of teenagers at a house in Montgomery County.

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“While his friend watched, she said, Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed on her back and groped her over her clothes, grinding his body against hers and clumsily attempting to pull off her one-piece bathing suit and the clothing she wore over it. When she tried to scream, she said, he put his hand over her mouth.”

Blasey, who eventually came forward identifying herself as the author of the letter, told The Post that she “thought he might inadvertently kill me. He was trying to attack me and remove my clothing.”

Kavanaugh has denied the allegations root and branch. In a statement released last week, the judge said “I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation. I did not do this back in high school or at any time.” A man believed to be a witness to the event, the filmmaker and author Mark Judge, has denied Blasey’s assertions in rather expansive terms, and has denied knowing anything about the party.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine spoke to reporters on Sept. 17, saying that if Kavanaugh wasn’t being truthful about these allegations, “that would be disqualifying.” The right-wing brain of the punditocracy has similarly suggested the same thing, confident that Kavanaugh's denials would carry the day.

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BUT THE larger, more panoramic problem for the Republicans vis-à-vis Kavanaugh the nominee has been playing itself out for weeks. If the nominee’s truthfulness is the tripwire for disqualification, Kavanaugh may have already dealt himself a fatal blow.

The attention rightly paid to the Blasey-Kavanaugh dispute is one thing. What’s been somewhat overlooked by comparison is the assertion, based on reporting from several sources, that Kavanaugh has lied in Senate testimony, previously and before the very committee convened to determine his fitness for the Supreme Court.

Jeremy Stahl’s story in Slate on Sept. 12 is valuably comprehensive in exploring Kavanaugh’s apparent perjuries before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s most recent hearing earlier this month, and at hearings in 2004 and 2006.

And Pima Levy and Dan Friedman of Mother Jones were just as good in their exhaustive Sept. 6 story documenting Kavanaugh’s mistruths going back to 2002 and 2003, when he was a Bush White House lawyer, one who extracted information from documents belonging to the staff of Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, a committee member — despite denials by Kavanaugh that he ever received it. The Mother Jones story also explores Kavanaugh’s apparent misstatements concerning his knowledge of the Bush 44 warrantless wiretapping program and torture policy (in 2006).

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The bottom line: Kavanaugh may be able to refute Blasey’s assertions about a long-ago incident at a party in Maryland, but that incident, whether it happened or not, pales (chronologically speaking) in comparison with the contemporaneous allegations that Kavanaugh lied as recently as weeks ago — in his testimony before the judiciary committee.

Lying about something that happened 30-odd years ago, tree-ring time, is one thing. It’d be another mountainous challenge to Kavanaugh’s nomination if he were also found to have perjured himself this year, or this month, about other matters pertinent to his character and honesty and qualifications.

Hopefully, Collins, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, Sen. Jeff Flake of Nevada, and any other Republican senators seeking the truth in the Kavanaugh matter — or cover from their possible intent to vote against him — already recognize that Kavanaugh’s nomination needn’t hinge on any one thing. It could and probably should rest on a combination of matters, including previous deceptions that would seem to be just as disqualifying as anything related to Blasey’s allegations.

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THE COMMITTEE hearing scheduled for Sept. 20 has been pushed back; Republicans have offered to hear from Blasey on Wednesday, Sept. 26. Blasey's attorney, Debra Katz, told the Judiciary Committee on Sept. 20 that Blasey would appear for a Capitol Hill hearing if senators provide “terms that are fair and which ensure her safety.” The Trump administration now confronts a challenge unlike anything it’s previously encountered.

Facing the certainly damaged and possibly doomed nomination of a singularly compromised candidate for the country’s highest court, House Trump is pushing against a growing chorus of opposition to Kavanaugh’s nomination. New polling finds public support for Kavanaugh hasn't just stalled but gone in reverse.

Choosing to die on Kavanaugh Hill risks alienating millions of the same suburban white women, seniors, independents and women over 50 who helped power Trump to the White House in 2016, and whose votes will also figure in how well, or poorly, Republicans do in the midterms seven weeks away. That’s option one.

Or (option two) Trump can come to grips with the declining return on investment he’s realizing with this flawed choice for the Supreme Court — he can admit a momentary defeat — and pick someone else. For the president*, one choice is unpalatable, the other is anathema.

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For an electorate that’s getting more restive, and a base that’s maybe more and more complacent in the face of Trump’s antics, neither option is exactly a confidence builder. One’s still better than the other, albeit not by much.

But Senate Republicans don’t have the luxury of looking at Kavanaugh’s obstacles in isolation; the nominee’s been shown to have lied or otherwise smudged the truth earlier in his judicial career, and he’s in the hot seat now for possibly having lied about his high school past. And practically speaking, it makes no sense for Blasey to volunteer to turn her life and her family’s life upside down for the sake of pursuing a decades-old lie.

In a tweet that smartly distills the issue in terms anyone can understand, Steve Schmidt, a former Republican campaign manager and current Republican apostate, asked the questions that the leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee have to ask themselves, hard, over this coming weekend:

“Riddle me this. If someone is lying (Dr. Ford) and they know that lying to the FBI is a crime, why would they be asking for an FBI investigation? If a sitting Federal Judge is accused of something he denies with his reputation at stake, why wouldn’t he demand one?”

Guaranteed: Suburban women voters have been asking themselves those questions too.

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IN A MARCH 2015 speech, speaking at Catholic University's Columbus School of Law, Kavanaugh made a curious comment whose implied borderline anti-social context obliquely reinforced the idea that, hey, boys will be boys, some boundaries just don’t exist for some people. Some rules don't apply.

“By coincidence three classmates of mine at Georgetown Prep were graduates of this law school in 1990 and are really, really good friends of mine,” said the judge.

“Fortunately, we've had a good saying that we've held firm to this day, as the dean was reminding me before the talk, which is ‘What happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep.’

“That's been a good thing for all of us I think.”

There may be no one in the country who wishes that were true more than Brett Kavanaugh.

Except maybe Donald Trump.

Image credits: Kavanaugh: Columbus School of Law. Blasey: The Ford family.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Cape Fear

SUMMER 2018, like most other summers the season of ball games and barbecues, has been more for students of the Trump White House. For them it’s been the season of the objective correlative -- the literary technique of representing a feeling with literal symbols that objectify that feeling. In recent weeks, for example, the east coast, and certainly Washington, D.C., have been hit with strong rains of varying intensity: weekends of water that sometimes fell at rates between one and two inches an hour.

More recently — and consistent with a major hurricane  lashing locales up and down the eastern seaboard — the physical reality of the weather is mirroring the parallel reality of presidential politics. Other storms have House Trump coping with torrential downpours of its very own.

The dovetailing of objective reality and the presidential anti-reality of Donald Trump couldn’t be more apparent. Neither could the almost-providential coincidence of the book Fear by Hurricane Bob Woodward, a work that lays bare the calamities, arrogances, stupidities and unforced errors by Trump & Co.; fresh attention paid to the might of Hurricane Maria (which devastated Puerto Rico almost exactly a year ago, claiming almost 3,000 lives, a death toll Trump now insists is a political fabrication); and Hurricane Florence, a monstrous and possibly historic storm that’s slamming into the Carolinas this weekend.

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But the presidential reality distortion field has buckled over the last two weeks. The presumed Great & Powerful Donald Oz is facing down an abundance of forces, from Capitol Hill to the streets, ready to reveal a presidency whose current implosion shouldn’t be a surprise, one that in so many dynamic, operational ways was on its last legs the day it began those 600+ days ago.

A CNN poll — the first such survey since the twin broadsides of the New York Times op-ed and the first excerpts of Woodward’s Fear — found that 32 percent of Americans see President* Trump as honest and trustworthy, a new low in his 20-month presidency. His approval numbers fell 6 percent in a month, mostly among independent voters.

Interesting, though: In the same poll, 69 percent of the country thinks the economy is in good shape. Republicans may try to spin that number as favoring the GOP agenda in November, but there’s a problem with that: It’s the very fact that the 69 percent who view the economy favorably are at odds with the falling poll numbers for the president who’d take credit for that economy. The polling number for the people who celebrate the current economic momentum should be more in line with the polling number for those celebrating the president who (presumably) made that economy possible.

The fact that they’re polar opposites is a problem for the White House. It means that the population, if not the electorate, has already made what for Republicans will be a seriously inconvenient leap: the ability to separate Donald Trump from the upbeat economy Donald Trump is erroneously certain he created.

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THE POLLS get worse. September 12 saw a trifecta of surveys on the midterms in general and The Don in particular. Three new polls on voting for generic House candidates indicated a growing rise in Democrats’ prospects. The new NPR-Marist poll reported a 12-point advantage for a hypothetical Democratic aspirant for the House, over a hypothetical Republican.

Polls from Politico/Morning Consult and Quinnipiac University reported much the same information: slightly different margins (Dems have a 10-point bulge in the Politico poll, they’re 14 points up in the Quinnipiac) but the trend of Dems over GOP remains intact.

A poll from CNN gives Special Counsel and Trump bête noire Robert Mueller III a 20-point edge over Trump in how well the Russia inquiry is being handled (a poll powered by a misnomer since Trump isn’t handling the inquiry at all, and goes so far as to deny it has any reason for being). On Sept. 10, a Quinnipiac poll on Trump’s overall job performance had Trump upside down, with 38 percent favorables, 54 percent unfavorable. The same day, a similar poll from CNN put the Don’s overall favorables at 36 percent, unfavorable at 58 percent.

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It’s all polling about Trump, of course, but in other ways, it’s about us. Our sense of relating to not just the president but also to the idea of America, which the president presumably embodies. These polls and others point to an American public starting to make and develop that distinction between the president and the presidency.

One wave of predictable despond follows another. Even as Hurricane Florence batters the Carolinas — 5 people are dead at this writing — the president*, locked in the boundaries of his own private cape of fear, has gone a-twittering as usual, focusing as much on the rear-view mirror as what’s looming in the windshield in front of him, early and often re-litigating his administration’s utter failure of a federal response to Hurricane Maria, in Puerto Rico, a year ago.

You’ve seen the videos — or you will — of an American flag methodically vaporized, at the mercy of the relentless wind of the Outer Banks, on top of Frying Pan Tower about 35 miles off the coast of Cape Fear, N.C. In just hours on Sept. 13, it seems, it became just what we needed: the single, unspinnable image of what we are now as a country — torn, fragile, fluttering in multiple directions — and an image whose power is enhanced by the fact that it occurred naturally, organically, a result of the velocity of the national weather.

Not for nothing did Woodward name his new book Fear. The title of course perfectly captures the mood within the White House; and it defines the president’s* fundamental operational dynamic. It gets to the heart of all these poll responses. It distills the essence of what we so many of the people seem to be enduring right now, stoically or angrily. Like that flag: At the mercy of the winds around us, winds that seem to get stronger and more deliberately unpredictable all the time.

Image credits: Trump hair: via @TrueFactsStated. Fear book cover: © 2018 Simon & Schuster.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

AHS: Crazytown:
Administration on the verge of a 'nervous breakdown'

FANS OF anthology television know the acronym “AHS” is shorthand for American Horror Story, the riveting and popular anthology TV series created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk in 2011. Every season since, fans have been treated to a new AHS set in a new locale with new characters and new and more horrific events. Last season’s AHS: Cult examined life in a small Michigan town in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, exploring the dark side of small-town politics.

Maybe it’s time to consider flipping the script on what Cult examined. If Murphy and Falchuk ever briefly thought to give the AHS franchise a reality TV twist, they might consider a season not just inspired by that election, but one actually set in the chaotic, deliberately turbulent White House of Donald Trump, the president* whose thoroughly unleashed id has transformed the presidency and the national attention ... and ushered in horrors that TV couldn’t imagine.

A fresh parade of horribles seems to step off at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue every day, and thanks in part to a forthcoming book by the reigning investigative reporter in America, we’re witness to the degree to which name calling, backbiting, general bad manners, and various weightier civic atrocities that rise to the level of what the author calls an “administrative coup d’etat” are, going away, the rule at House Trump, not the exception.

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Fear (in bookstores Sept. 11) is the latest from Bob Woodward, the celebrated Washington Post investigative journalist in his own right, and one-half the dynamic duo that uncovered the Watergate scandal and hastened the political demise of Richard Nixon in 1974. Woodward turns his reporter’s eye on the Trump White House, its quirks and abundant dysfunctions. While only excerpts are available — some at The Post — those fragments deeply, sometimes comically, illustrate a White House in meltdown mode.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions comes in for particular abuse by The Don. It’s widely known that Trump excoriated Sessions for refusing to recuse himself in the continuing investigation into Russia’s hacking of the 2016 election. Woodward reports that Trump called him a “traitor” for the act of doing his job.

Trump — doing his best impersonation of Captain Bligh on the Bounty or Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny — reportedly said “everyone was out to get” him. At one point, Woodward writes, the president* mocked Sessions’ strong accent, saying to a staffer, “This guy is mentally retarded. He’s this dumb Southerner… He couldn’t even be a one-person country lawyer down in Alabama.”

Woodward writes that Chief of Staff John Kelly often lost his temper and told close aides that he thought Trump was “unhinged.” At one meeting, Kelly allegedly said to colleagues: “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”

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OTHERS DID what they could to blunt The Don’s “most dangerous impulses,” Woodward reports. In a meeting in January 2018, Defense Secretary James Mattis was angrily nonplussed at Trump’s dismissal of the value of a U.S. military presence in the Korean Peninsula — basically, Trump’s attempt to reduce the need for that military presence to a mere financial cost-benefit analysis. Woodward writes that Trump questioned why the United States was expending financial resources in the region at all.

“I think we could be so rich if we weren't stupid,” Trump later said in the meeting. Woodward reported that later, Trump said the United States was being played for “suckers.” Mattis testily countered, “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” he said to Trump, according to Woodward’s account.

After Trump left the meeting, Woodward writes, “Mattis was particularly exasperated and alarmed, telling close associates that the president acted like—and had the understanding of—‘a fifth- or sixth-grader.’”

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According to Woodward, Trump insulted his top cabinet members. He reportedly mocked H.R. McMaster, his former national security adviser, saying he dressed in suits that made him look like “like a beer salesman.”

Woodward wrote that Trump allegedly told Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that “I don’t trust you. I don’t want you doing any more negotiations … You’re past your prime.”

But the problems go beyond petty backbiting and doing the innuendo. Sometimes, matters of geopolitical importance hang in the balance. Woodward reports that Gary Cohn, former Goldman Sachs jefe and Trump’s former chief economic adviser, took official documents off Trump’s desk to keep him from signing them, including a notification letter to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“I stole it off his desk,” Cohn said to an associate, speaking about a document that would have withdrawn the United States from an important trade deal with South Korea, according to excerpts that were vetted by CNN. “I wouldn't let him see it. He's never going to see that document. Got to protect the country.”

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NEEDLESS TO SAY, House Trump was quick with attempts to minimize both the book and its author. Trump himself called it “a piece of fiction” or “a work of fiction” more than once on Wednesday. Kelly and Mattis issued statements calling Woodward’s assertions scurrilous fakery. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a budding fictionist in her own right, dismissed Fear in a statement whose irony is everywhere:

“This book is nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the President look bad. While it is not always pretty, and rare that the press actually covers it, President Trump has broken through the bureaucratic process to deliver unprecedented successes for the American people.

“Sometimes it is unconventional, but he always gets results. Democrats and their allies in the media understand the President's policies are working and with success like this, no one can beat him in 2020 – not even close.”

The problem with buying into the White House’s ritual denials of this book’s accuracy is the number of this book’s predecessors. Fear is only the latest of works about life in the hothouse bowels of House Trump; setting aside matters of journalistic pedigree and track record, you’re struck with their consistency. From the inside and the outside, they document various perspectives of an administration on the verge of, or in the throes of, what Woodward called a “nervous breakdown.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Fire and Fury, by seasoned investigative reporter Michael Wolff, got outta the gate early. Published in January, Wolff’s book examines the early iterations of House Trump, in the first fits of power and pique, as Wolff moved around the White House with a long-term visitor's pass. His fly-on-the-wall approach angered Team Trump.

In August, with her own fire and fury, Omarosa Manigault Newman, a longtime Trump Apprentice-era kindred spirit and former Trump administration official, published Unhinged, her own account of life during Trumptime in the White House. Also in August, Rick Wilson, a former Republican strategist, released Everything Trump Touches Dies, his viewpoint from the perspective of a GOP strategist and adman. And there were others before: Gaslighting America, The Plot to Destroy Democracy, Trumpocracy, and more.

All of them illustrate a White House whose characterization as “Crazytown” couldn’t be more universally embraced; all of them, in their various ways, sign on to the ominous sentiment embodied in the title of another book on the Trump administration: It’s Even Worse Than You Think.

◊ ◊ ◊

WOODWARD ALSO recounts presidential hubris that’s downright laughable in its presumption. After Twitter, The Don’s social platform of choice, doubled its character limit to 280 per tweet, Trump reportedly called it “a good thing, but it's a bit of a shame because I was the Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters.”

If you look past the sheer towering foolishness of a comparison like that — the White House Counsel should expect a defamation lawsuit from the Hemingway estate — you read the words of a man enamored of himself, utterly reliant in his ability to write his way out of this crisis a few hundred characters at a time.

He’s going up against writers and journalists and experts in the word — scribes that can sustain thought and argument for more than 140 characters at once. Or even 280. As the mayor of Crazytown, he’s free to enact any law or enforce any edicts he sees fit. But the authors of several books, and more besides, are taking him to task for (among other things) failing to recognize the boundaries of his absolute authority.

Trump may run Crazytown with an iron grip and his word as law.

The United States of America is another place, and another matter, entirely.

Image credits: Fear cover: © 2018 Simon & Schuster. Mattis: via @thehill. Everything Trump Touches Dies cover: © 2018 Free Press. Gary Cohn: via @BusinessInsider. Unhinged cover: © 2018 Gallery Books.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Florida's gubernatorial primary colors

FLORIDA FLORIDA FLORIDA: it’s the ultimate swing state, crazy from the heat of the weather or its own legislative invention, a lawless free-fire zone with guns more abundant than in the wild wild West. And with roughly nine weeks left before the November elections, the Sunshine State’s gubernatorial race is shaping up as the one to watch, thanks to an upset no one thought was possible, a racist dog-whistle everyone knew was probably inevitable, and the reliable potential for surprise common to a region in the center of the American Venn diagram of race and ethnicity, politics and the evolving national future.

The Sunshine State has set the stage, and the stakes, for a compelling finale to the 2018 midterms, and quite possibly sets the terms of Democratic engagement with Republican power in 2020.

There was idle talk that President* Trump had effectively nationalized the midterms, making them a referendum on his time in office. Inquiring minds would beg to differ: the midterms are necessarily a referendum on the people in state offices right now seeking re-election, and a gauge of the qualifications of those hoping to get elected for the first time. Trump can only hope the outcome of the midterms aren’t a national expression of his time in the Oval Office; the results of the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll would seem to say he shouldn’t do that.

But if there’s a way of truly, organically nationalizing this midterm vote — of taking the micro and viewing it in a macro context — it’s there in the Florida gubernatorial. ...

Read more at Swamp

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The sons of August 28

THEY STAND TOGETHER and decades apart, events on this 240th day of the year, events with deep resonance for African Americans, for better and for worse. It’s one of those repetitive coincidences of numbers, but a bit spooky just the same: the highs and lows, the joy and pain of the modern African American experience have been consistently distilled, over the long arc of history, into the events of one day, the same one day again and again. And here we are, where we’ve been before ... and where we’ve never been before.

It was on Aug. 28, 1955, when Emmett Till -- a black Chicago teenager visiting relatives in Money, Miss., was abducted from his uncle's home by two white men after supposedly whistling at a white woman (a woman who has more recently admitted she fabricated the whistling story). Till's body was discovered three days later, so badly disfigured that his face was unrecognizable. His death was among the first such widely documented, highly publicized atrocities in the era of the civil rights movement, a movement catalyzed — globalized — by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

MAYBE Emmett Till was on the organizers’ subconscious minds, or maybe it was just the luck of the schedule and the available date. Whatever it was, eight years later, on Aug. 28, 1963, King and other orators called America to account for the bogus check for opportunities undelivered, and wedded the American dream to those of its African American citizens.

In an address at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, before at least 200,000 people, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, an accidental keynote address, set the rhetorical tone — and the stakes — for a movement still in its ascendancy.

FAST FORWARD 45 years: The torch of possibility had passed to a new generation, one of whom had the ... audacity to make hope something less evanescent than it had been, something more than an indistinct green light in the far distance.

On Aug. 28, 2008, Barack Hussein Obama, a Democratic junior senator from Illinois — a man with the courage and the nerve to attempt to occupy the White House as the president of the United States and not as the help in the kitchen — won the Democratic presidential nomination. The rest is history (the kind we wish we could relive right now) and current events.

◊ ◊ ◊

AND ONE audaciously capable man hands off to another. On Aug. 28 of this year, Andrew Gillum – son of a bus driver, previous resident of Gainesville, mayor of Tallahassee —confounded the expectations of polls, pundits and state history, winning the Democratic primary for the governorship of Florida, positioning him to be the first African American chief executive in the history of the Sunshine State.

A believer in classic retail, press-the-flesh politics and a full embrace of the progressive tradition of demographic outreach, Gillum stunned a game challenger with deep political roots in Florida. His campaign mantra might as well be one for everybody in the country: Believe it is possible and act accordingly.

August 28 clearly has a hold on both the imagination and the Gregorian calendar. It marks bitter with the sweet ... or sometimes, more bitter than sweet by orders of magnitude.

Return with us now to this date in yesteryear — way yesteryear — to see how the past is always intruding on the present. Thank The Independent (UK) for reminding us that it was on Aug. 28, 1518 -- 500 years ago — that the King of Spain, Charles I, authorized a charter permitting the transportation of slaves directly from Africa to the Americas, without stopping at a European port. Thus effectively ushered in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the financial rationale that supported it, and the myriad horrors that followed in its wake.

◊ ◊ ◊

From The Independent: “Charles’s decision to create a direct, more economically viable Africa to America slave trade fundamentally changed the nature and scale of this terrible human trafficking industry. Over the subsequent 350 years, at least 10.7 million black Africans were transported between the two continents. A further 1.8 million died en route.

“This month’s quincentenary is of a tragic event that caused untold suffering and still today leaves a legacy of poverty, racism, inequality and elite wealth across four continents. But it also quite literally changed the world and still geopolitically, socially, economically and culturally continues to shape it even today ...”

Some August 28th anniversaries we can do without.

Image credits: Obama at Invesco Field: Jeff Riedel, GQ Magazine. Gillum: Screengrab from Gillum TV ad. CharlesI; portrait by Bernard Van Orley, 1519.

Monday, August 27, 2018

A life of light and burning:
John McCain (1932-2018)

IN A NEW York speech in 1888, James Russell Lowell, refuted a once-abiding notion about the nation's prime operational document: “[A]fter our Constitution got fairly into working order, it really seemed as if we had invented a machine that would go of itself, and this begot a faith in our luck which even the Civil War itself but momentarily disturbed.”

Lowell, a poet, philosopher, critic and founding editor of The Atlantic, of course knew better, understood perhaps intuitively that the Constitution needs constant care and vigilant maintenance, that the “machine that would go of itself” was always subject to the whims and wiles of anarchists posing as mechanics. Lowell got that.

John Sidney McCain III got that too.

When the senior Arizona Republican senator, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and veteran of the House and the Senate died in Arizona on Aug. 25, days short of his 82nd birthday, the machinery of the American government lost one of its most capable goodwrenches, a lawmaker who brought integrity, intelligence, passion and (not least of all in a body that could use it) a sense of humor to the process of American governance. He could be infuriatingly infuriating. He was more often, more consistently, infuriatingly original.

◊ ◊ ◊

I won’t greatly go into McCain’s life in the military, or his time as a Navy pilot, or the five years, four months and 16 days he spent wounded and broken at Hỏa Lò Prison (the so-called Hanoi Hilton), a time and a period that solidified his sense of purpose and a fierce drive to survive the worst of circumstances. More, better, and more detailed writing has been devoted to that pivotal phase of his life.

I’m focused here on what came next: his time as a public servant on the battlefield of politics. For much of that time, McCain hewed the party line, did so well and often enough to have served for 35 years in Congress, 31 years as a senator. But there was an independent streak that ran deep. Sometimes his “Maverick” tag was richly deserved, other times not so much.

On the controversial Don’t Ask Don’t Tell issue, in October 2010, McCain said “I will filibuster or stop it [a repeal] from being brought up until we have a thorough and complete study on the effect of morale and battle effectiveness,” he said, in a stalling action that couldn’t have been more transparent. He called the day of the repeal’s passage “a very sad day.”

It was during that debate, of course, that he flat-out told ABC News: “I obviously have always been opposed to gay marriage.” Later that year, he came out against the DREAM Act, which granted conditional residency for immigrants brought to the United States as young children. In late 2014, he came out against Obama administration efforts to normalize relations with Cuba. And going very far off the rails, McCain accused President Obama directly for the 2016 Orlando Pulse nightclub shootings.

◊ ◊ ◊

BUT THOSE generally ritual partisan reflexes ultimately gave way to something bigger, grander, wider.

In December 2014, McCain backed releasing to the public the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture. Conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency. "The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow,” he said. “It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. It is sometimes used by our enemies in attempts to hurt us. But the American people are entitled to it nonetheless.”

On July 25, 2017, in the midst of the furious debate over the health-care bill vote, McCain arrived in the well of the United States Senate and made an epic, 13-minute speech that should be a template for achieving deliberation and consensus in Congress.

On July 28, three days later, he returned to the Senate floor and cast the deciding vote against the “skinny repeal” bid to overturn Obamacare — a vote at odds with nearly all of his Republican colleagues in the Senate — in dramatic fashion befitting, well, a maverick.

◊ ◊ ◊

In August 2017, with a lapidary op-ed piece he wrote in The Washington Post, McCain put the toxic political discourse in perspective: “Our national political campaigns never stop. We seem convinced that majorities exist to impose their will with few concessions and that minorities exist to prevent the party in power from doing anything important.

“That’s not how we were meant to govern. Our entire system of government — with its checks and balances, its bicameral Congress, its protections of the rights of the minority — was designed for compromise. It seldom works smoothly or speedily. It was never expected to.

“It requires pragmatic problem-solving from even the most passionate partisans. It relies on compromise between opposing sides to protect the interests we share. We can fight like hell for our ideas to prevail. But we have to respect each other or at least respect the fact that we need each other.

“That has never been truer than today, when Congress must govern with a president who has no experience of public office, is often poorly informed and can be impulsive in his speech and conduct. We must respect his authority and constitutional responsibilities. We must, where we can, cooperate with him. But we are not his subordinates. We don’t answer to him. We answer to the American people.”

◊ ◊ ◊

WRITING IN The Daily Beast of Aug. 25, John Avlon offered a trenchant remembrance of McCain that doubled as informed speculation on how the national trajectory would have changed If McCain had been president:

“It’s worth reflecting on how different the trajectory of modern America would have been if McCain had prevailed in 2000. Polls showed that the general election would not have been close, with McCain’s deep appeal to independent voters likely sparing the nation from a Supreme Court decision resolving a popular and electoral vote split. Despite positioning himself as the anti-Slick Willie, McCain would have continued the centrism that Bill Clinton ushered into office while corralling the far right. After 9/11, he would have been a pitch-perfect national father figure because of his personal sacrifice and military service. -- ”

We have to stop Avlon right there because of one implicit assumption he makes, innocently enough. In this scenario, 9/11 would have happened, right on schedule. I’d respectfully suggest that this wouldn’t necessarily have been the case.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Songbird Day

ALL DUE PROPERS to the great Maya Angelou: Now we know why a songbird sings — sometimes it’s to keep from being a caged bird for any longer than the law allows.

Michael Cohen — the longtime attorney, consiglieri and former Kevlar vest for candidate-now President* Donald Trump — has thus seen the error of his ways. That was the message delivered Tuesday in federal court in Manhattan as Cohen pleaded guilty to five counts of tax evasion, two counts of campaign finance violations, and one count of making false statements to a financial institution. All of it, in the words of Robert Khuzami, the Southern District of New York deputy U.S. Attorney, “for the purpose of influencing the 2016 election.”

The two campaign-finance violations were for those two hush-money payments — two big checks written to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, to get them to shut up about possible extramarital affairs they had with The Donald.

At his hearing Tuesday, Cohen said he took the campaign-finance actions — paying the two women $280,000 “in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office.” Trump’s previously denied knowing anything about it. Cohen faces sentencing in December.

◊ ◊ ◊

Lanny Davis, Cohen’s attorney, later told NPR that Cohen would never accept a pardon from Trump. “I know that Mr. Cohen would never accept a pardon from a man that he considers to be both corrupt and a dangerous person in the oval office,” Davis told NPR's “Morning Edition” on Wednesday. “And [Cohen] has flatly authorized me to say under no circumstances would he accept a pardon from Mr. Trump.”

And in Alexandria, Va., Paul Manafort, former Trump campaign manager and ostrichware enthusiast, was found guilty of five counts of tax fraud, two counts of bank fraud, and one count of failure to file foreign bank accounts. (Manafort attended the pivotal Trump Tower meeting in June 2016, with Cohen; a Russian lawmaker, Natalia Veselnitskaya; and Donald Trump Jr., eldest son of The Donald.)

Manafort faces from seven to nine years in prison — and another trial: he’s scheduled to appear to appear in federal court on Sept. 17 in Washington, to face charges of money laundering, witness tampering and lying to the FBI.

Tuesday marked the 579th day of House Trump; it was, not arguably but certainly, the worst in the history of a breathtakingly inept administration. Tuesday was the day when lie was put to Trump’s tireless “Rigged Witch Hunt” accusations. On two fronts, in two courtrooms 235 miles apart, at in practical terms the same moment, two of Trump’s once-trusted lieutenants were, by jury or by self-admission, guilty of various frauds and felonies, some of them directly implicating the President* of the United States in violations of federal law.

◊ ◊ ◊

THE SHORT-TERM impact of this one-two punch was first proffered in the media as a series of more or less equal events, but in short order, that changed. The songbird part of the story, its mea culpa dimension, had more weight than the narrative of a clotheshorse fixer going up before a jury of his peers. Manafort became the sideshow, the peripheral event. He was a short-term associate of the Trump 2016 campaign, directing the campaign for all of four months.

Cohen was the real deal. He's had the longer relationship with Trump (at least 10 years) and the more crucial one. As Trump’s personal lawyer, Cohen was in a position to know about everything, to deflect every problem, to minimize every impact.

The media adjusted its lens appropriately by Wednesday. Look at the Wednesday page one of The New York Times; it grasps the power of betrayal as a catalyst for drama, it gets the turncoat aspect that makes the twists and turns of this narrative irresistible.

◊ ◊ ◊

Now, of course, we can probably expect that, even with Tuesday’s seismic events, and the repercussions that haven’t even landed yet, it’ll be business as usual in House Trump, the Oval Office occupant will use what just happened as another opportunity to hunker down, to showcase the obstinate temperament honed and cultivated with his longtime mentor Roy Cohn, who instilled in Trump a never-settle mindset that slipped the confines of law and the courtroom a long time ago.

Trump can be expected to be in circle-the-wagons mode for a while, and certainly from now until November. And why not? He knows what’s at stake. And the power of the bully pulpit of the White House isn’t to be underestimated.

For House Trump, Tuesday’s events were just another routine attack against a president* used to being under siege, and acting accordingly. Look at the press briefing on Wednesday. The embattled White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, looking more and more like Ron Ziegler every day, tersely replied to reporters’ questions, trying to maintain the deadpan sang-froid that’s been her stock in trade since she started the job.

ALL OF THIS changes the trajectory of a presidency that’s been sorely challenged from the beginning. The reports of the mood from inside the White House have not been promising. The Washington Post reported that Trump was in “a foul mood” on Tuesday, after the Manafort-Cohen haymakers landed, and “slightly deflated” later in the day, at a rally in West Virginia.

Robert Costa and Josh Dawsey of The Post reported: “ ...[A]t least for now, at least for a day, Trump resisted lashing out in a dramatic and public way. Instead, Wednesday was a moment for calculation and conversation, a pause for a rattled administration, according to White House officials and outside advisers familiar with the discussions. Several advisers who spoke to Trump said he seemed more frustrated than furious, more sad than screaming.”

That’s likely to be the mood at House Trump for a while. As if Omarosa’s tapes weren’t problem enough, and they were and still are, now there’s the prospect of tapes from Cohen (more than the one released earlier in the year) — tapes that, unlike Omarosa’s, may not go into the public record right away, tapes that are likely to be the property of the Special Counsel’s Office. Tapes that House Trump can’t possibly refute because House Trump didn’t know they existed in the first place.

◊ ◊ ◊

One White House official not authorized to speak publicly told The Post: “We’ve been through everything; the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape when almost everyone walked away,” said. “This is nothing. He’s fine.”

This White House official is a master of self-deception. The canine-metaphor enthusiast occupying the Oval Office is not fine. This is not a locker-room-talk moment like the Access Hollywood tape; it’s not an overheated rhetorical screwup like the “shithole countries” crack. This is not nothing. What happened on Tuesday is more. This is existential, maybe not right away but soon and for months and months to come.

This drama is a process, not an event, and it’s barely begun. Much of it over the last 579 days has played out in public. Some of it has played out in private, in cloakrooms and other confessionals, and, probably, in the blessed seclusion of a room somewhere in Washington, where Mike Pence has been quietly practicing the words of the presidential oath of office.

Image credits: Cohen: Yana Paskova/Getty Images. Manafort: booking photo. Trump and Roy Cohn: Marilynn K. Yee—The New York Times/Redux. New York Times front page: © 2018 The New York Times Company. Trump: tktktk.
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