Ask Amber from The Fix

May 22, 2018

Happy Tuesday. I write about politics for The Fix blog, and I'm chatting live here every Tuesday at noon Eastern about the day's biggest political news. What are you curious about?

Good Tuesday to you all, and thanks for joining me with questions about this already fast-paced week in politics. Here's what I'm watching: -How unusual it is we know the identity of the FBI source -Why Democrats in TEXAS are leaning left in their primary runoffs tonight -Is Paul Ryan's leadership in jeopardy? -Meghan Markle at Prince Charles's garden party (oops wrong chat) What are you curious about?

with whether the midterms can be sold as a vote for or against Nancy Pelosi as Speaker? There will be a new Speaker no matter what. Is Nancy Pelosi as Speaker vs. [specific new Republican Speaker] that much more damaging than Nancy Pelosi as Speaker vs. [generic new Republican Speaker]? I can see a lot of reasons to keep Ryan in there. The failure of the farms bill may be mostly his fault, or it may be a problem with the divisions in the party that no one can really address right now. I'm guessing a little bit of both. Which means that passing a budget or CR in September is going to by ugly. So why not blame the ugly on the old guy, not a new one?

I think a key point here is that especially this day in age, people tend to vote for the party they support. Republicans are pretty convinced that any attention whatsoever on a SPEAKER Nancy Pelosi will motivate Republican voters to come out and vote so that doesn't happen. Basically: When putting House leadership in the context of the 2018 midterms, think tribalism. 

Hi Amber -- thanks for taking questions today. Of course no one knows for sure, but the word seems to be that Mueller will either be out with something by summer's end (which comports with what Giuliani is saying) or will have to wait until after the midterms. Here's my take -- Trump is screaming wrap it up, but in reality he'd be just as happy to see it drag on because it gives him an excellent talking point for the midterms (I'm being persecuted, it's a plot to bring me down, it's the Dems just being sour grapes about the election, lock her up, etc. etc.) In other words, dragging it out helps him more than not. Your take?

Thanks for asking questions! Seriously, it gets lonely when it's just me and my mom in this chat (love you, Mom!)

Short answer: No one knows when Mueller will wrap up his investigation except for Mueller.

Slightly less short answer: Mueller really wants to interview the president about what he knows, so much so that we've reported Mueller has issued an extraordinary threat to take Trump to court if he refuses. That suggests Mueller may not wrap up the investigation until he can talk to Trump or he loses a court battle, whichever comes first. And THAT suggests that, yes, the president is dragging out an investigation he desperately wants to end because he won't sit down for an interview, an interview where he could get caught misstating facts and be in even more potential legal trouble. Trump's in a tough spot here!

I understand that the Complicit Speaker of the House can routinely ignore the will of the minority when scheduling votes. But how does he get to completely ignore something that is brought up by a MAJORITY of the House? He really needs to explain where in the Constitution is the Hastert Rule. Complicit Paul Ryan was someone I used to disagree with but respected. Where has he gone?

Well, there aren't 218 signatories on the discharge petition to force various votes on immigration -- yet. So he doesn't have to make that decision yet. 

And the Hastert Rule you speak of is definitely not in the Constitution. It's more of a promise between Ryan and House Republicans that he wouldn't bring up anything for a vote on the House floor that doesn't have the majority support of House Republicans. Of course, a relatively small group of moderate House Republicans could force him to violate that promise if they can get 218 members (a majority of the entire House) to sign on. More on all this here.

Surprised there hasn't been more reporting on this? I'm pretty sure if Obama had done/said something like this, it would be the lead story every night.

I bristle at those "If another president did x, then coverage would be y" comparisons, because you just can't compare Obama to Trump. Trump's news cycle is much larger, fast-paced and norm-breaking than Obama's ever was, for a variety of reasons. So when you think "oh there's less coverage of X issue," it could also be that there's just way more coverage of a ton of other issues too. Plus, The Post has written like half a dozen stories so far on Trump and Chinese leaders agreeing to save this Chinese company. 

Follow The Post's Damian Paletta for more on this.

Has he ducked under long enough? Is his job safe for now?

I have no insider info, but it sure seems like it. The less Pruitt is on the front pages of newspapers and leading cable news coverage, the safer his job is. That's just the way the Trump admin has come to work.

Now I'm shopping for every outfit she owns.

*some* of what she wears is affordable, in the sense that it's only priced at 3 digits as opposed to 4 or 5

Isn't it pretty unusual to have a confidential source publicly identified? I seem to recall a lot of shock and anger when Valerie Plame was identified. Then again, I don't recall a whole lot of details about the Plame case. Why isn't this like that?

VERY unusual. As I wrote today:

Security analysts maintain that that is a pretty normal course of action in an investigation and that, contrary to Trump's claims, the FBI didn't do anything illegal. But it's not normal to have the FBI looking into a U.S. presidential campaign's ties to a foreign country trying to meddle in U.S. elections. It's safe to say that it definitely didn't want this informant or his activities made public.

Former FBI agent Asha Rangappa said Halper's identity and activities would have been guarded closely within the FBI. “When [people like Halper] are put into case files within the FBI, they have a code name or a number,” she said, adding: “There's a vault somewhere where people's sources can be matched up to their name. Once you seal off that vault, nobody knows who they are except, like, the two FBI agents working the case.”

OK sorry for delay. I got hungry, went to microwave my lunch real quick, there was a line ... anyway I'm back where I want to be, with y'all. 

Republicans are complaining that an investigation into a Republican president led by a Republican appointed by a Republican appointed by that Republican president, which has now spawned a separate investigation led by another Republican deputy to yet another Republican appointed by that same Republican president, is "biased" against the Republican president. What is with these folks?

That is definitely a logic hole in Trump and his allies' argument as they try to claim the investigation by professional intelligence officials is politically motivated. As you point out, all of the key players are Republican, including Robert Mueller, who was appointed by Republican Rod Rosenstein  (who was appointed by Trump). Also on their side is FBI Director Christopher Wray, who was appointed by Trump. (And Trump is wrong when he says that Mueller hired all Democrats. As The Post's Matt Zapotosky reports, nine of the 17 on Mueller's team made political donations to Democrats. One of those nine also contributed to Republicans.)

Am I saying that because all these investigators are Republican that the investigation is fair? No, of course not. But a key talking point of Trump's is that this investigation is motivated by Democrats to get him. The facts just don't bare that out.

I had three questions about this story. 1. "Democrats can't decide which way to go": You also reported this week that moderate and conservative Republicans resisted Ryan-Trump solutions on immigration and farming, respectively. That looks like split ideology too. Why is it that the split(s) in the Democratic party means "they can't decide" and the split(s) in the Republican party does not? 2. You attributed the party's lean to the center to "Washington Democrats." Haven't many of the special election winners in the last six months or so been moderate to conservative Democrats? Doesn't that signify that people outside Washington think the party should run to the center? 3. Could it be that the support for leftish Texans means only that that works in Texas, and might not apply elsewhere? I seem to recall someone saying "All politics is local."

Hi! Thanks for reading my story about Democratic strategy in primaries and your questions.

1. The "can't decide" phrase does not exclusively belongs to Democrats about politics or policy battles in 2018. 
2. Sure, there are voters outside Washington Democratic leadership who vote for center-left candidates. As I said in No. 1, the party hasn't decided what direction to go. But, to answer No. 3 
3. This is not just a Texas thing. Kara Eastman, an unapologetically progressive candidate, won a primary in Nebraska last week against a former Democratic congressman. Now, nonpartisan analysts have downgraded that race as less competitive for Democrats, because she is arguably too liberal for this district, which gives the incumbent Republican a boost.

The Department of Justice is investigating themselves. What are the results bound to be?

That's not correct. The Department of Justice's independent watchdog is tasked with investigating any potential wrongdoing (for which there is no evidence) among FBI agents looking into Trump-Russia connections. The inspector general is independent from the Department of Justice specifically for these purposes.

How does one explain the discrepancy between the poll results that seem to show the gap between a generic D and R growing closer and election results that have so far shown large Democratic gains? Is there something weird about the districts that've voted so far>

The gap between which generic member of Congress voters would choose, a Democrat or a Republican, has significantly narrowed AFTER some of Democrats' special election victories, like in Pennsylvania. But Democrats are still picking up seats in special state legislative elections that they were not competitive in before. So, to answer your question: We're going to get mixed signals, just like any election. There are a lot of competing factors at play in the 2018 battle for control of Congress. Just two, as an example: The party in power typically loses seats in the first midterm. But Democratic voters don't typically show up in high numbers in midterms. And Senate Democrats are defending some seats in states that voted heavily for Trump in 2016.

Thank you. Signed, Joe Manchin.

Ya if he can get past the sore loser law preventing exactly this after losing the GOP Senate primary earlier this month, that's about right.

Do you think Russia thought they could determine who won, or were they just wanting to sow discord and chaos? If the later, then is it not possible that they thought the best way to cause chaos would be to support the underdog and attack the favorite? Could "helping Trump" be more "helping the underdog"?

So former CIA director John Brennan, who was CIA director during the 2016 election and basically watched Russia meddle in real time, testified the following to Congress last year:

That at first, Vladimir Putin seemed to just want to knock Hillary Clinton ,with whom he had bad blood while she was secretary of state. “I believe they tried to damage and bloody her before the election.

-That morphed into supporting Trump. Brennan also surmised that Putin may have liked the idea of a businessman as president, an outsider who might be more amenable to negotiations with the Russians.

If the investigation yields anything other than Trump's desired results, won't heads roll at DOJ?

Far be it from me to predict what this president will do, but that seems like a possibility. Trump has already made clear he wants to fire either special counsel Robert Mueller or the DOJ official who appointed him, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

If Congress authorizes another special counsel to investigate the FBI, would that supersede the Justice Department Inspector General's investigation?

I don't know how two special counsels would work. But one important caveat: Congress doesn't appoint this person. The Justice Department does. And while Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been a Trump ally, he's recused himself from all things Russia. His No. 2, Rod Rosenstein, does not seem amenable to appointing a second special counsel

The only way Trump will deem them "independent" is if they fully exonerate him. No other president - Nixon, Clinton, certainly not Obama - would have been allowed to get away with such foolishness.

I won't speculate on the second part of your statement. But you're right to be skeptical Trump won't take the Justice Department's inspector general's findings at face value. He's bashed the inspector general in previous tweets as untrustworthy (again, sans evidence. The IG has come out with critical reports on former FBI No. 2 Andrew McCabe, whom Trump wanted -- and arguably got --fired.)

Amber, I disagree with your comment "you just can't compare Obama to Trump". It sounds like a cop-out and minimizes Trump's assaults on our government and our country as a whole. I think situations like the ZTE affair reveal how much the GOP Congress is unwilling to stand up to Trump and their complicity in his actions

Fair to disagree. But Republicans in Congress's reaction to Trump and ZTE is a whole different issue than press coverage of it.

I enjoy talking about tacos as much as the next person, but maybe you should consider moving this chat time until it's, like, after lunch?

I blame Chris Cillizza for making this 12-1 slot kinda an institutional one. Plus, if you're on the east coast, it means y'all get to eat lunch and "look" like you're working when you're really hanging with me.

I am a left-leaning independent living in a blue Texas city in a very blue neighborhood. Beto yard sign, which will be joined by one for whoever wins the run-off for Democratic nominee. I voted for White thinking he would have a better chance of beating Abbott. Abbott has done the unimaginable of making Perry look good by comparison, who made W likewise look good by comparison.

Thanks for chiming in from my home state! I was in Ft. Worth last weekend, in a lean-left neighborhood, and saw lots of Beto yard signs.

As I write, unseating a Republican governor in Texas is a longshot. But Andrew White has a point that a more moderate Democratic nominee has a better shot than a liberal one (his opponent, Lupe Valdez). Gov. Abbott beat Wendy Davis, who was really well known in the state, by nearly 20 points!

Hi Amber- how unusual is it for these DOJ/FBI folks to meet with only Republicans on the Russia Interference probe? Seems weird to me. How ticked off are the Democrats at being excluded?

Well, these most recent series of meetings don't seem that unusual to me, because they're about information that only House Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee are seeking. Democrats don't agree that the House committee, which technically wrapped up its Russia probe, needs these documents about an FBI informant who talked to Trump campaign officials. They'd be happier if the House GOP restarted its Russia probe rather than focus on investigating the FBI.

Does the White House already know what he may have been telling the FBI, and so trying to get ahead of it by calling his involvement improper? Or are they just muddying the waters of the overall investigation, regardless of how germane Halper's info has been to the Mueller probe?

I think it's fair to ask why Trump is spending a notable amount of time and energy alleging the FBI spied on his campaign (without any evidence). His series of tweets demanding a DOJ investigation came on a weekend where there was remarkable developments into his campaign's connections to foreign governments: The NYT reported that Donald Trump Jr. and senior Trump campaign officials met with a Gulf emissary interested in helping them win the election (which would be illegal interference). 

My understanding is that Rosenstein served in non-partisan positions in the DoJ throughout his career, and was supported in his nominations by both Republicans and Democrats. When you say he's a Republican, are you referring to his voter registration?

Well I said he was appointed by a Republican president. But he also has been a registered Republican.

Meuller comes up with diddly squat on Trump and no charges etc are filed. What do the Dems do???

And that's why it's never advisable to put all your eggs in one basket. (Though I don't think Democrats are. They're running against the tax bill and on strengthening Obamacare and on Trump's unpopularity beyond the Russia investigation.)

You say Trump doesn't want to sit down for an "interview where he could get caught misstating facts." Don't you mean lying? It's a much simpler and more direct way of saying it. If not, what's the difference between lying and "misstating facts?"

Sure, great question. To say someone is lying suggests I know their intent: That they intentionally did not tell the truth. 
I am not inside Trump's head, so I can't say whether he's lying, or misremembering things, or just being careless with the facts to suit his political agenda. And I certainly don't know whether he'll intentionally lie to Mueller when they sit down under oath.

It's a fascinating discussion, when to use the "L" word, one that got me in a back and forth with Bernie Sanders last year. For more on this, I suggest you read my Fix colleague Callum Borchers: "Media standards on lies and false statements are changing fast"

And Post senior political writer Dan Balz: "Trump and his attorney didn't tel the truth. Will that change anything?"

As a retired DOJ attorney, I can tell you that presidents appoint both Democrats and Republicans to positions of authority in that agencies, and that doesn't convert them to the affiliation with the president's party. They're supposed to be picked based on merit. I know that's an archaic theory, but being appointed by a Republican doesn't make all DOJ appointees Republicans.

And that's a fair point too. Former FBI director James Comey was a registered Republican and served under the Obama administration and got fired by Trump.

I think political affiliation of these key players is not as important as Trump and his allies are making it out to be. But Trump is making it an issue, so we are debating it.

Why in the world would the Democrats get behind Rep. Pelosi for Speaker? The Dems were upset in an election 2 years ago by a Republican electorate that railed against (perceived) liberal Democrats. Wouldn't it make sense for the Democrats to back a less polarizing figure if only to have fewer Republican voters show up to vote in the mid-term elections?

That's a question some Democrats in Congress are definitely considering. Nancy Pelosi, if elected speaker, would be the first in recent times to lose the majority under her watch, then regain it, and become speaker again. Normally those guys (they've all been men before) get booted by their party after losing power in a midterm election.

You said several News outlets identified him first as the Informant. Which ones were they and how did they get his name?

The Daily Caller, a conservative publication, first made the connection and used his name. How they got it is a mystery to me and a former FBI agent I talked to. 

NBC news is just reporting: The Environmental Protection Agency barred The Associated Press and CNN from a national summit on harmful water contaminants on Tuesday — and guards forcibly shoved a female reporter out of the building. The EPA blocked the media organizations, along with the environmental-focused E&E News, from attending the meeting in Washington, convened by EPA chief Scott Pruitt.

Ah yes, this just happened. Thanks for pointing that out; it does bring Pruitt to the forefront again. And if reporters were barred from covering a public event, and even physically removed (I haven't looked into the details yet), that is a troubling development that amounts to trying to control journalists doing their job.

So the EPA banned CNN and AP from covering an open event. Next will be further erosion of the media by this Administration at other events and more vilification of the press. Do you feel marginalized yet? Has the press ceded its "Gatekeepers of Democracy" role yet or is the press really the "enemy of America" as Trump has stated?

Let me answer your question this way: I feel like our job to ascertain the truth the best we can, and then share it with y'all, is incredibly important.

Thanks for your great questions this week! See ya next Tuesday. More Fix content here and here and at 12 pm Eastern Friday for Aaron Blake's live chat. 

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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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