Q&A: Ask Amber from The Fix

Apr 17, 2018

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

Apologies for starting a few minute late. Sean Hannity. The GOP leadership race. The Michael Cohen raid. Democrats having a little less midterm momentum in polls. What are you curious about today? 

There's just too much all the time to keep up with anymore. Was there anything remotely like this during Obama or Bush presidencies and has there been a single slow-news week since Trump became President. If it seems like one is going to be, Trump notices the lack of attention and does something, e.g. fire and fury.

Sing it sister! (or brother, they don't specify which on this chat software for me.) 

But, yes, this is not normal. And I think there are a few reasons for the onslaught of political news right now, and, yes, they mostly all come down to who's president:

1. Trump is extraordinarily unusual as president. The way he communicates, what he says, his policies, his leadership style. It's all news because it's all so new.
2. Trump is leading a Republican Party that is shifting before our very eyes, something we may very well look back on as a turning point for the party. That's also potentially historic.
3. The president of the United States and his campaign are under investigation by a special counsel related to a foreign government meddling in the U.S. presidential election in remarkable ways.

Those are all massive stories. And they're all happening simultaneously! 

Hi Amber -- thanks for taking questions today. Despite the mess he's in with Cohen, etc. etc. Trump's approval rating, all things considered, really isn't that terrible, and the Democratic advantage in the upcoming mid-terms seems to be shrinking instead of growing...but at the same time, I just saw that Dent is leaving Congress, many other Republicans are choosing not to run or retiring (Ryan, for instance). So at the end of the day, how do things look for a House flip? Or is it too early to tell?

Thanks for asking questions today! (Especially since Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Rucker is hosting a Reddit AMA over on the r/politics channel at the same time.)

Yes, that's correct: Trump's approval is ticking up and polls this week show Democrats' enthusiasm gap among voters shrinking slightly. And Republicans are faced with a historic number of retirements. Dent had already decided to retire but announced today he'll resign in a few weeks, because, why stick around? 

It's a mixed bag of news for Democrats. The thing I'd say to watch to see if they have a chance to flip the House is the generic ballot, or what voters say when asked if they want a generic, nameless Republican or generic, nameless Democrat to represent them in Congress. Right now -- and that's just April 2018 -- Democrats have a lead, but it might not be enough to flip the House. That could change, and it's important to note they've been ahead of the generic ballot question all year. 

Q: since recording phone conversations without a party’s knowledge might constitute a crime in itself, can any of the potential Cohen recordings be used as both evidence against Cohen and the person recorded? ��

I believe New York is a one-party consent state. So Cohen could legally record those calls without the other party's consent. 

isn't it just too darn early to start talking with bravado about a #bluewave in November? i mean, trump's approval numbers just went up despite all that happened last week

See a question or two above! There's lots of evidence that Democratic voters are more motivated to vote than Republican voters in November, but just this week there's evidence that D's enthusiasm gap advantage is slowing down. 

The more publicity Comey gets for his book.

Yup, and there's a case Comey's critics are making -- and in some instances, he's helping them make -- that he's prioritizing book sales over, say, the message. 

So the FBI IG concluded that Andy McCabe lied multiple times, including while under oath. Why isn't he under arrest like General Flynn? Who is responsible for making the decision to charge him or not to charge him?

Well Michael Flynn, Trump's national security adviser for about a month in 2017, got ensnared in the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller. It's very likely that Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI to get out of more crimes and jail time, and now he's helping the special counsel with what he knows.

The FBI's former No. 2, Andrew McCabe, was accused by an internal Justice Department watchdog who lied to investigators and his boss, James Comey, about his role in disclosing information to the press. That's not a department with prosecutorial powers. And McCabe got fired, hours before he was set to retire with a full pension. 

If Trump fired Mueller today, what long run effect would that have on the investigation that he is leading? In the short run, it obviously would be disruptive and who knows what the political or legal consequences would be for Trump. But would the investigation end with Mueller, or would that be up to DOJ to decide?

This is a Good Question. I was talking to a former FBI agent the other day, Asha Rangappa, who said we're all missing the point by focusing on firing Mueller, or even the man who appointed him, Justice Deparment's No. 2 Rod Rosenstein. 

The investigation would go on, because there are rules in the Justice Department that say it would go on. "Mueller could get hit by a bus today, and it wouldn't change the investigation," she told me. Basically, she said, Trump and his allies would have to dismantle the entire Justice Department AND the federal courts to stop this probe. 

They can blunt the probe, by say, appointing someone to oversee it who might not authorize investigative tools as easily as Rosenstein (who okayed the Raid on Trump's personal lawyer's office, for example).  

Is the President also afraid to attend the White House Correspondents’ Association? The Kennedy Center Honors? Baseball Opening Day? He lives in such a safe space!

His supporters would say he tweets a lot! Certainly more, and more candidly, than past presidents for whom Twitter has existed. 

But you're right, that's different than taking tough questions from the press. And he doesn't do that very often, though I don't have immediate stats on how he compares to Obama at this time of his presidency. 

Do you think that Loretta Lynch tried to get out in front of what Comey said about her in his book by setting up an interview with Lester Holt just before it came out?

I don't know, but this question underscores a point I wrote last week: That no one in Comey's new book comes off as virtuous -- except maybe Obama. But certainly not his attorney general, Loretta Lynch, whom Comey accuses of asking him to refer to the Clinton email investigation as a "matter" rather than an "investigation."

And your question also proves a point I made: That partisans can focus on whatever they want out of this book to make the other side look bad. 

So, this may be a question better asked of an attorney, but I'll do it anyway. I just assume that Trump will pardon anyone in his inner circle who is in serious *federal* legal jeopardy. And we all probably know that he cannot pardon state crimes. That said, could New York State legally put together a conditional plea agreement in concert with the feds? In other words, for example, Michael Cohen's plea agreement on hypothetical NY state charges is conditioned on him *not* accepting a pardon from Trump, and agreeing to cooperate with both Fed and state authorities. Is this even a thing? Is it possible?

Oh my goodness, I have no idea. But if we get to that situation with his lawyer, I'll definitely explore with legal experts loopholes that could help Trump pardon Cohen. 

For those of us who aren't thinking as deeply as this guy is on pardons, here's a primer on who the president can pardon and why. (Anyone, except if it's a state crime.)

Bill Clinton: 11 Ronald Reagan: 6 Jimmy Carter: 22 Gerald Ford (who only served from August to December in his first year as president): 4 Richard Nixon: 6 https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/12/22/trump-held-only-one-press-conference-year-his-predecessors-had-way-more/976675001/

Thanks for looking that up

This maybe last months fish and chips paper but it’s been bugging me for a while, these investigations appear to be toothless and wheel spinning. They claim they will subpoena folks who refuse to appear or refuse to answer questions, if they do have this power it does not seem to have been used. What is the point, is it just partisan politics? If they have power

Well, there's an argument to be made that House Republicans did end their Russia investigation prematurely. 

But the Senate version is still going strong, and by all accounts, Democrats and Republicans are mostly in agreement about the direction. So we'll see what comes out of that.

Does Ryan's announced resignation (along with Corker, Flake, Gowdy) represent a definite shift in the party toward Trump? That is, is it now Trump's party?

There are still Trump resisters in the party, but definitely, Ryan's departure could become a landmark moment for the Republican Party and its shift toward Trump. Ryan is a globalist, Trump a nationalist. Ryan loathes identity politics, Trump arguably got elected on it. 

I'm just not getting what the fuss is. I get that most of the liberal media hates and despises Sean Hannity, so they're jumping all over him for not disclosing that he had some kind of limited legal relationship with Cohen, but Hannity is an opinionist, not a reporter so who cares? And does anybody think that he would have a different opinion of Cohen if he had disclosed the relationship? To me, having George Stephanopoulos, formerly Bill Clinton's press secretary and now a reporter (NOT an opinion writer), interview James Comey about his former boss's wife's presidential campaign is of much more concern even if the relationship IS disclosed. The standards for reporters should be higher than for opinionists.

I think the fuss is this: Hannity is close to Trump. Cohen is close to Trump. The FBI now has an undisclosed amount of Cohen's records, conceivably about both men. What do they have, and how is it damaging to the president? 

Who are the most likely governors to be defeated in the fall?

My campaign junkie! Earlier this year I listed 10 of them, most of them Republican (or a Republican seat that is being vacated by a Republican.)

If I were doing the rankings today, I'd say the governor most likely to be defeated in the fall could be Illinois governor Bruce Rauner, for a variety of reasons, mostly that he's a Republican trying to win election in Illinois. 

Others on the list: 

-Independent Alaska Gov. Bill Walker
-Republican Gov. Larry Hogan 

Still waitin'...

Nah, I just started late. I can proudly say that I have NEVER forgotten to hit the "go" button to start the live chat. Although, watch me do it next week ... 

I assume someone offered him a real good job to leave Congress now instead of at the end of the year. And they wonder why people hate Congress.

Yeah I think that's a safe bet. The New York Times had previously reported he was exploring TV contracts when he announced earlier he was going to retire at the end of this year.

And you could flip that last sentence around to: Even people in Congress right now hate Congress. Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) was one of the most moderate members of either party, and there's clearly not a place for him right now in Congress.

Can you please explain to a layperson why the number of clients Cohen has is important?

This is a fantastic question, and it's one I had myself yesterday. 

I believe it's important to the federal judge hearing Cohen's/Trump's plea yesterday to let them dig through the documents the FBI took BEFORE the FBI does. Cohen claims the FBI took thousands, maybe millions, of documents that could be classified under attorney-client privlege (and thus stored away from the FBI's prying eyes.)

But he provided no evidence for where he got that number, so the judge asked: Okay, fine, how many clients do you have right now, and who are they? That gave her a better sense of whether she should trust the FBI's own internal vetting process for giving back documents protected by attorney-client privilege, or let Cohen and Trump do ti first. She ultimately sided with the FBI. 

Hey Amber, Congrats to the Post on the Pulitzers! I was wondering why more officials from the Bush Administration (with the exception of Comey) haven't been more critical of the Trump team's attacks on the FBI/DOJ. Does their collective silence mean they support the attacks?

Thanks! So so proud of my colleagues. Also, we were joking, does the fact "The Washington Post" won a Pulitzer technically mean I won one?

And there are a number of Bush officials speaking out, most prominently former White House ethics lawyer Richard Painter, who is a must-follow on Twitter.  I think the other ones are expressing their displeasure in silence, out of respect for this administration. 

Hi Amber, How do you square these two seemingly contradictory trends? Democrat Conor Lamb wins in a Trump +19 district a few weeks ago, and yet the generic ballot has narrowed. Nothing *new* has happened since then that we might reasonably describe as politically beneficial to Trump. Yes, Trump's approval rating has ticked up...but still remains at or below the 45% he won in Nov. 2016. if you follow the polling averages. My sense is that he has successfully tribalized nearly all of the voters who supported him then, and that barring a recession or foreign policy catastrophe, he'll remain between 40-45% as long as he's in office.

Another likely scenario is that Democrats were hyped up for special elections earlier this year, where outside groups and liberal blogs could focus activists' attention on one race. This November, it will be more spread out, and attention more disparate, and we may already be starting to see some waning enthusiasm among Democratic voters when the attention among races is splintered. 

Will Pruitt ever get ousted? I mean, bullet resistant SEAT COVERS? I just keeps getting more ridiculous. Obviously I'm more concerned about how he is selling out our environment, but even the "little" things are out of control.

The longer the drip drip drip of potential ethical violations by Pruitt goes on, and Pruitt is still in his job, the more I'm inclined to think he just might keep his job. 

I've been overwhelmed by the variety of headlines and tweetstorms on the McCabe situation. As a total non-expert, all I can do is digest what I read from hopefully credible sources, and I'm well confused. Some sources suggest the IG report about McCabe is misleading, or parts of it were released without context, or it's totally damning, or it reveals McCabe acted cleanly all along. And the internal FBI emails about Jill McCabe running...reports differ on what those tell us. So on and so forth. Can you give/link to a relatively nonbiased summary of what to moderately believe, but hopefully with more analysis than "Dems say X while Reps say Y?"

Yeah the whole thing is very insidery and bureaucratic, with Justice Department IG reports and internal investigations about news stories. I can offer you a nonbiased summary, and I offer it to you here

No money needs to change hands for a person to engage an attorney. If a client enlists an attorney to provide counsel, advice, etc. about legal matters, that person is the attorney's client. So Sean Hannity's focus on payment is not important.

As The Fix's Callum Borchers points out, "you can't have attorney-client privilege without being a client" 

You think there will be limited enthusiasm from the Democrats this November? For a large majority of American's, this will be the first time they get a chance to show their displeasure to maybe the least popular president ever. November is going to be a bloodbath.

Yeah, but historically, Democrats don't vote in midterms nearly as much as Republicans, who tend to be older, whiter and more affluent, do. So the fear for Democrats is that their supporters are falling back into apathy. 

Heck, what about the Missouri Governor hanging on to his office for dear life? Can McCaskill parlay this into enough anti-GOP voter animus to improve her chances of getting reelected?

I wouldn't put it past her, as I explain here. 

Last time I looked, Larry Hogan was the second most popular governor in the US. Has something changed? I can't believe that somebody that popular would actually lose simply because he's a Republican. And the people running against him are not that impressive, too.

You're correct he's quite popular in Maryland. And he's definitely not my top incumbent to be defeated. But as I wrote: "Anti-Trump sentiment in this liberal state may be too strong for even a politically skilled governor like Hogan to overcome."

When will we see the next update on each edition of The Line?

I need to do that! And as primaries settle, I'll start doing it much more regularly, like weekly, closer to the election. 

I think the whole team of The Fix should get a Pullitzer for all the hard work you have done in the last two years. Thanks for being there and making politics more easily digestible, even when events are hard to swallow and follow!

Thank you! 

Did President Trump deny knowing about the Stormy Daniels *contract*, or the *payment*? If the former, then that not only invalidates it (not a contract if only 1 party knows about it), but means Cohen committed fraud when he misrepresented to her that Trump was the other party. But no one seems to be pointing out to Trump that he is defending a guy who, by Trump's own words, is a fraud. So maybe the latter?

Trump denies knowing about the payment, though he hasn't ruled out he could be involved in some way. He's going to court to protect the NDA contract. 

It seems Trump should be even more afraid of the Southern District of New York than of Mueller.

Judging by his tweets, he's concerned about both. 

Are you comically making the claim that Ryan was a Trump resister? Ryan gave Trump a pass on everything. Calling racist statements "unfortunate" is not the definition of a Profile in Courage.

No I am absolutely not calling Ryan a Trump resister. In fact, I wrote a whole post on the day he announced his retirement about how he won't be the GOP's next anti-Trumper. 

I'm gunna go out on a compliment (the one above about hwo The Fix should have won a Pulitzer). Thanks for chatting everyone! This week was a lively one, which I love. See ya'll next Tuesday right here at 12 ET. The Fix's Blake is chatting right here at 12 ET on Friday, and we have tons more content on The Fix AND in my afternoon newsletter, The 5-Minute Fix. Seriously, you can't escape us. 

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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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