Q&A: Ask Amber from The Fix

Mar 20, 2018

If it's lunchtime Tuesday, it's Fix politics time. What do you want to know?

Sorry I'm a few minutes late. What do you want to know? (Also, for the dedicated reader who always asks for race rankings: I published this for you! Top 10 House races of 2018.

When will PA-18 finally be decided?

I think we'll have to wait a few more days or even weeks for the official count. Some news organizations have called the race for him, but not the Associated Press, which is waiting on local officials to count absentee and provisional ballots. Then, the loser can ask for a recount, and we'll be waiting even longer! And as soon as someone gets to Congress, they're going to have to turn around and run for election in November in a completely redrawn district (a whole gerrymandering case just threw out all of Pennsylvania's congressional districts.) So, ya, this race is kinda a mess right now. 

This seems to imply that any lawyer can be bought. I'm hoping that plenty of ethical attorneys tell Trump "No, not at any price."

I think being Trump's lawyer is a frustrating job; he's a mercurial, uncooperative client, according to our reporting. Same goes for the tough job his aides have. But I think rather than being "bought," the chance to be close to power and potentially influence it is an intoxicating thought for many people. 

Has anyone seen or heard from Mitch McConnell in the last couple weeks? I mean, we've had resignations, firings, election upsets, tweet storms bordering on the lunatic, but nothing from the Senate Majority Leader? Where is this guy? Or is he happy with how things are going?

I can confirm one thing: He is definitely not happy with the way things are going. McConnell would much rather be talking about legislation or confirming judges to federal courts. But McConnell is practicing a strategy he's deployed most often in the Trump era: Conflict avoidance. Seriously, the one time that he appeared to even remotely dis Trump (after they failed to repeal Obamacare), Trump went OFF on him

I think the 2020 candidate for the Dems is going to have to be a moderate. How does the far left of the party realize they can't win with free healthcate, free college and forgetting the rural blue collar voters who put Trump in office?

Then you agree with former Democratic Alaska senator Mark Begich and a bunch of other red-state Democrats.  I'm just not sure the party is listening to you folks right now -- Dianne Feinstein in California didn't get her party's endorsement to run for U.S. Senate again, in part because she had suggested Trump has it in him to be a "good president." 

What do you think his chances are (to beat Cruz)? I saw him on Bill Maher and was really impressed. He fits the Conor Lamb mold - young, energetic, moderate and focused on local issues - and he doesn't accept Pac money!

He does indeed seem to be a good campaigner. But while smart campaigning (and a backlash against Republicans) worked for Lamb in Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania is not Texas. The last time they voted for a Democrat for president was 1976 -- they haven't sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate about as long as I've been alive. I think the state may indeed be trending more purple, but it doesn't seem to be happening in time to get O'Rourke elected statewide.

Here's my breakdown on why there doesn't seem to be a blue wave in Teas.

It was pretty stunning to see a Freedom Cacus House Republican call on the lawyers of the President of the USA - if you are NOT GUILTY, act like it! I don't recall Republicans trying to finish up the investigations of Benghazi or HRC's emails?

I actually don't think Rep Gowdy is a member of the House Freedom Caucus, but to your point, he is conservative and he does not shy away from political fights with Democrats. So, yes, it was remarkable to hear him give candid advice to the president, to stop trying to impede Mueller because it makes the president look like he's got something to hide. (Gowdy can speak a little more candidly given he's retiring.) 

No doubt some people in Trump's own orbit are telling him the same thing behind closed doors. (Heck, even Fox News's Sean Hannity, who informally advises the president, said on TV this week that Trump should zip it on Mueller for his own good.)

But Trump doesn't seem to be listening to those people right now. 

If his only job is conflict avoidance, then he needs to get a new job. You wanted to be Senate Majority Leader (or dog catcher, for that matter) then do it. You didn't get elected so you can sleep while Rome burns.

I think you're getting at a broader point, which is: What are Republicans going to do to stop Trump from firing Mueller, or at the very least to stop the president from discrediting the special counsel? And so far the answer seems to be: not much. With a few exceptions, Republicans in Congress are not issuing ultimatums or threats or even warnings to the president to back off, at least not ones that are backed by actions: Republicans show no great desire to move bills in Congress to stop Trump from firing Mueller. 

Didn't Beto O'Rourke and the 2 other Democrats running get fewer votes in total than the Republican?

Yup, O'Rourke got about 600,000 votes less than his general election opponent, Ted Cruz. Democrats say that, duh, that was going to happen -- Cruz has been known statewide for at least six years, O'Rourke is from a far, far corner of the state (El Paso) and just introducing himself to voters. 

I keep reading that Trump keeps toying with the idea of firing Robert Mueller but first of all, there are a few hoops he'd have to jump through: fire Jeff Sessions who would be replaced by someone who would relieve (fire?) Rosenstein, right? And then Mueller gets fired but isn't there someone else under Mueller would simply take all the work they've done and keep going? I ask because it sounds simple in print, fire Mueller, but it is more complicated than that isn't it?

Whew, how much time do y'all have? 

Yes, you're right, firing Mueller is much more complicated than Trump just firing him. For one, he technically can't. Mueller answers to the Justice Department, not the White House. So Trump has three options to get Mueller off his back, all three of which he has considered -- and the third of which he appears to be pursuing right now:

1. Fire Mueller anyway: Though legal experts don't think Trump would survive an inevitable court challenge, and Mueller could get reinstated, and then Mueller would really have a case for obstruction of justice. Also, would Republicans in Congress consider impeachment proceedings at that point?

2. Fire Justice Department officials until he finds someone willing to fire Mueller. This is the Nixon approach, and it could get metaphorically bloody. 

3. Discredit Mueller's probe, and the FBI, and the Justice Department, until he puts so much pressure on Justice Department officials to fire Mueller that they have no choice. You could argue that strategy worked for getting rid of Andrew McCabe at the FBI. 

I'm afraid that Trump will believe he has just stumbled on to a new Federal deficit reduction plan. Fire all FBI personnel and all Federal employees for that matter just hours before their retirement eligibility. All they have to do is make up some Trumped up charge like using the bathroom on government time. Trump must be a genius. He told us so.

Except there might be a way for McCabe to get some (or all) of his pension back. 

Hey Amber, great piece yesterday about the McCabe situation. As for McConnell, isn't it somewhat naive for him to think that the special counsel doesn't need to be protected from possible firing?

Thanks! And, to your question, it depends. House Speaker Paul Ryan said today that he has "assurances" (won't say from whom) that Trump won't fire Mueller. Maybe those are enough for Republican leaders to feel secure. But they are playing with fire here, because we know Trump has already come close to firing Mueller last summer. 

Judging from his increasing hostility to the Russia probe, is President Trump slated to fire Bob Mueller anytime soon?

I think Mueller's job -- and the investigation he's leading -- appears more at risk than any time since last June, when Trump seriously considered firing Mueller. Then he seemed so set on it that he only backed off after one of his top aides threatened to quit. 

If you were a betting woman, what do you think the GOP would do if Trump takes steps to fire Mueller. Dems don't really have a say in today's Congressional environment.

Well, Democrats do have some leverage. They could hold up Friday's must-pass budget, laying the tripwire for the third government shutdown in 2018, unless Republicans include a provision making it illegal for Trump to fire Mueller. But I don't get the sense they are taking that idea seriously. 

So....now to the more difficult part of your question. What do Republicans in Congress do if Trump takes steps to fire Mueller? I think for sure they openly criticize him. I have no idea if they take it any further, whether that's censuring him or even starting impeachment proceedings. I just don't know, and I don't think they know what they'd do. I don't think they're allowing themselves to entertain that idea. 

Regarding any issue surrounding the insanity of the Executive Branch, do you have any event/outcome combination that, if reached fruition, would lead your gut to say "Okay, we have reached peak Trump"? Thanks again for ignoring your reporting duties to spend time with us.

Love chatting with y'all every week. I think the climax of this whole saga comes with one of two things:
1. Mueller finishes his investigation and releases some kind of rundown on what happened -- assuming he does even release a report. As Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) has said, we may never know more than indictments Mueller makes. 
2. Trump moves to fire Mueller. 

Those two actions would be peak insanity, and I'm not ruling either one out in the next few months. 

If the GOP loses control of either the Senate or House, ho secure is their leader's position? Or will someone else shoulder the blame?

I think in the House, Speaker Ryan would have a very hard time hanging onto his leadership job in the Republican Party. I'm not sure if there's as much energy to revolt in the Senate against Leader McConnell, but losing the Senate two years after Republicans got full control of Washington is not what he wants on his resume. 

Sorry for the cheap ploy to get your attention, but I do have a serious question. Would you agree that smart money says it's more likely that Democrats take back the House in November than they don't? And if so, then how in the world do House Republicans who survive the Blue Wave expect to accomplish anything before they face the voters again in 2020? I know that sounds snarky, but I really am curious.

Haha I appreciate and acknowledge your creativity. 

I don't think it's more likely than not that Democrats take back the House, because this political cycle is just too unpredictable. But things are certainly heading the way Democrats need them to. 

And, you're right, if that happens, President Trump is stuck -- what can he accomplish with Democrats that might help him survive a primary challenge and a general election challenge? 

Very early here, but have you heard anything about whether he'll run again in 2020? And who might challenge him on the Dem side? After Trump himself, I have to think he'd be priority #1 for Dem pick-ups, recognizing the difficult terrain in that state.

I haven't, but that's a good question. Though I disagree with your assessment that Kentucky is difficult for Republicans, in fact, over the past few years it's become easier for them to win. They just took back the state House for the first time in nearly a century. 

At this point, does it really even matter how they call the race? The collective memory everyone will have is of Lamb winning, or at least declaring victory. And one vote in the House isn't going to matter on any legislation that may come up before the election. So really, if Saccone wins in a recount, beyond a couple of headlines and being able to introduce himself as Representative...who cares?

I think that's a good point, and an important one. The fact that the Democrat ate into what was a 20-point Trump district to even come close to winning is the main event of political significance here. 

Does h stand a chance in November? He will have to find a new district, and the GOP will be ready this time.

Well, if he wins this special election that's still outstanding, he will get to run in a district redrawn between March and November to be much more friendly to Democrats. 

If he loses, he could still run in that district, just not as an incumbent.

Someone asked if Rick Saccone, the Republican in the race, will run again. That's a good question. There are certainly neighboring districts from the 18th that are being redrawn to be more Republican friendly. But filing deadlines are coming up for those, and Saccone is stuck waiting for absentee ballots to be counted for a race he might lose. 

What is the difference between the FBI's "Office of Personal Responsibility" and the Justice Department's "Inspector General"?

Good question. 

The FBI office recommends disciplinary action for FBI officials (in the case of McCabe, that he be fired). In the case of McCabe, they based that firing recommendation on the Justice Department's inspector general, a watchdog that investigates wrongdoing in the entire Justice Department, of which the FBI is just one branch. 

Hi Amber, Re: my earlier post - my point was that Kentucky is difficult for *Democrats* and that despite this, they'll still have a go at unseating McConnell. Was curious if you'd heard of any potential Dem candidates emerging from the rumor mill, at least.

Oh, my apologies, I read your earlier post wrong.

I haven't heard of any potential Dem candidates yet, but it's still early. I'm sure he'll have a challenger. 

I believe it's today!

Today or tomorrow, according to the Pennsylvania board of elections (I just looked it up.) 

President Trump's repetitious tweets are said to be his was to energize the base. It seems to me he repeats the same message over and over again. Does he run the risk of losing the base through sheer boredom? Is there any indication that this strategy works over a long period of time?

A year in a half in, I'm not bored yet. I'm exhausted! Are you bored? 

"And if so, then how in the world do House Republicans who survive the Blue Wave expect to accomplish anything before they face the voters again in 2020? I know that sounds snarky, but I really am curious." Cheap ploy guy here again. Thanks for your reply, but I was actually asking how you think House Republicans would handle minority status for the next two years, not Trump.

Ah. I think you were clear, and I just chose to answer the question I wanted to answer, rather than the one you actually asked.

I think House Republicans might actually have an easier time in the minority. Sure they'll have less legislative victories to show for it when they're up again in 2020, but running as the opposition is almost always easier than running as the people in charge. It's just easier to rally the base when you get to say "no" all the time. 

The deadline for filing is TODAY. It looks like Lamb will stand in the new (dem leaning) 14th District. It's not been a good week for the GOP having both their state and SCOTUS cases rejected.

Thanks. Although you could argue a silver lining for Republicans: If they didn't think Saccone was a very good candidate, looks like he won't be able to run in another race in November

Trump has said he's finally getting the cabinet he wanted. So, what stopped him the first go-round?

I think that's a fair question. And if you were to pose it to the president, he'd likely say something about trial and error -- he didn't know he wasn't going to get along with Rex Tillerson. 

It's only been 14 months!

Ugh really? 

G2G but thanks, as always, for great questions. See y'all next week! 

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Amber Phillips
Amber Phillips writes about politics for The Fix. She was previously the one-woman D.C. bureau for the Las Vegas Sun and has reported from Boston and Taiwan.
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