November 18, 2019

Today felt like a deep breath before we dive into the week’s impeachment hearings. But there were several interesting developments that, taken together, suggest that Trump’s power to dominate the Republican Party is weakening.

First of all, there has been a swift and vicious backlash to New York Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik’s attempt to convince followers that House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff was silencing her by refusing to let her commandeer the floor against the rules in the impeachment hearing the other day. While it is notable that folks seem to be giving Devin Nunes (R-CA) a pass for his own role in the charade, there have been widespread calls of foul over Stefanik, including from a local newspaper that endorsed her in 2016. The Post-Star called her “partisan… disingenuous and irrational,” and blamed Trump’s Republican Party for “strangling our institutions and undermining what does, actually, make America a great country.” Every GOP county chair in her district (NY-21) signed a letter supporting Stefanik, after her Democratic challenger, Tedra Cobb, raised $1 million in three days after Stefanik’s stunt. This suggests to me they feel the need to try to shore up her support when she has become a national meme as someone who has stupidly hitched her star to Trump as his power is crumbling.

Then, last night, CBS dropped a story alleging that Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee (and Mitt Romney’s niece, by the way) put the squeeze on Trump’s nominee for ambassador to the Bahamas, San Diego real estate developer billionaire Doug Manchester for $500K to help his confirmation get through the Senate. Let me simplify that: The RNC hit up a billionaire for a half a million bucks to buy an ambassadorship. This is illegal, of course. Once the story broke, the RNC immediately promised to give back the $100,000 it had already received from him, and blamed Manchester for misunderstanding what McDaniel meant. But here’s why this story is interesting to me as a sign of something different: Manchester was game for the fee, and put it in writing, cc’ing the staffers controlling his nomination. Those staffers worked for Rand Paul (R-KY) and Jim Risch (R-ID). Risch told the White House about the paper trail, and it asked Manchester to withdraw, which he did. But the news story implied that those staffers were the ones who handed over the documents to CBS. So they sat on this damning story… until now.

And then today there was Trump’s surprise meeting with the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board Jerome Powell. Trump has put enormous pressure on Powell to lower interest rates into negative territory, a move that would stimulate the economy by making it even easier to borrow money than it already is, and so, he hopes, make people feel better about him as the economy—with luck—would start showing stronger growth. Trump has called Powell, his own appointee, a “naïve” “bonehead” for refusing to do as Trump wishes. Immediately after the meeting, Trump tweeted that the meeting was “very good & cordial” and that he and Powell had discussed “interest rates, negative interest, low inflation, easing,” and so on—all the things Trump wants. But Powell released a letter saying they did not discuss these issues and that he did not support lower interest rates. The letter added “that he and his colleagues on the Federal Open Market Committee will set monetary policy, as required by law, to support maximum employment and stable prices and will make those decisions based solely on careful, objective and non-political analysis.”

Doesn’t that “non-political analysis” sound like a dig at Ukraine-Scandal Trump?

And one last story on this topic: Conventional wisdom says that run-of-the-mill Republicans, who are not part of the leadership that might have more complicated reasons to stay with Trump, have stuck with him out of fear that they cannot be reelected without his support. Being on the losing end of one of his tweets is supposed to be the kiss of death. But the recent Democratic wins in governor’s elections in Kentucky and Louisiana suggest that while Trump is indeed great at turning out his base, at this point he is even better at turning out people appalled by his behavior. Trump won Louisiana by 20 points in 2016 and Kentucky by 30. In both states, Trump showed up for a last-minute rally to help the Republican candidate, saying that voters should consider the election a referendum on him. They did. In both states, Democrats won. After he went to Louisiana, statistics show the turnout increased significantly more for Democrat John Bel Edwards than for Republican Eddie Rispone.

What am I seeing? Crumbs that suggest Republican leadership might be beginning to see Trump as a liability rather than as an asset. If that scale continues to tip, they will drop him like a red hot coal. (They will, of course, fight tooth and nail to make sure the scale doesn’t tip, but voices outside GOP leadership might be starting to force them to acknowledge reality.)

And Trump's vulnerability is increasing. Today also dropped the news that, after the Roger Stone trial turned up new evidence about what Trump knew about the Wikileaks dumps in the summer of 2016, the House of Representatives has begun to investigate whether or not Trump lied in his written answers to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. If you recall, a Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell decided (in a really powerful opinion) that the Department of Justice must turn over those records, but the White House instantly appealed. Today House lawyers argued in a federal appeals court in Washington that the need for the secret grand jury evidence Mueller’s team collected was urgent, because if the president lied, that might become part of impeachment proceedings. (Personally, I doubt that it will. My guess is they just want the grand jury materials in general and this issue added urgency, so I don’t expect to see the inquiry go this direction, but it will certainly increase pressure on Trump.)

Tomorrow the hearings start up again, and there are a lot of them this week, in what looks like it might be their last week. Up at 9:00 tomorrow morning is Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine specialist at the National Security Council (the advisors who help the president on national security issues and foreign policy). Vindman listened to the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky and reported it to the head NSC lawyer, John Eisenberg, who then moved the call into the highly classified system to limit access to it. Then Jennifer Williams, a foreign service officer assigned to Vice President Mike Pence’s office, who also listened in on the call.

The second panel will meet at 2:30, and will include Kurt Volker, the special envoy to Ukraine who resigned the day after the whistleblower’s complaint was made public. Volker was one of the “three amigos” Trump tapped to pressure Zelensky after he recalled Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. Volker worked with Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. We will also hear from Tim Morrison, the former NSC aide who also heard the July 25 call, but who testified behind closed doors that he did not think the call was improper.

Hard to imagine these hearings are going to bring Trump much good news. It's going to be quite a week.

Buckle up.