Ask Amber from The Fix

Aug 14, 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?

Every newsmaker in Washington must now know how Jan Brady felt! How do we treat the statements from a woman who self-admits she is "playing the villian" and is trying to sell her book?

Very cautiously. It's just too soon to tell what claims of hers are true, if any, what aren't. Some things to keep in mind, as I outlined Monday in my 5-Minute Fix newsletter:

  • She was offered $15,000 a month in what amounted to hush money when she left the White House. ThePost’s Josh Dawsey has a document verifying as much.

  • She talked to Trump a lot, even though aides were suspicious of her and tried to keep her away from thepresident.

  • She says there is a tape of Trump saying the “n-word”; a prominent GOP pollster she in part pins the rumor on says that is “flat-out false.”

  • For many black voters, writes The Fix’s Eugene Scottthe White House’s highest-ranking black employee standing up to Trump on race comes too late: “[She] spent more than a year trying to convince black Americans that the only candidate who was sued by thefederal government for discriminating against black people was not a racist.”

Do you suppose this is some sort of ploy so Manafort can later appeal on grounds of inadequate defense, should he be convicted?

This just happened as I started my live chat, so I have an unsatisfying answer for you: I don't know what their strategy is. It seems like an unusual way to approach such a high-profile case, where the prosecution spent a week calling on witnesses, including, perhaps most damningly, Manafort's former No. 2, Rick Gates, who testified they both lied for years about their finances. 

If he had written what he did on his own personal private non-governmental phone, they would have had much less of a case against him. I'm a mid-level fed with a government phone, and I don't use it for anything personal. Too much of a risk.

I'm so not a mid-level fed, but that sounds exactly on target. FBI agents have criticized Strzok for carrying this all out on his work phone. As someone told my excellent Washington Post colleagues, Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett, Strzok "stepped in it."

Why such silence around Ellison from Kirsten Gillibrand/DNC/etc? Even making a statement saying that the allegations are troubling and need to be investigated, which I would assume/hope everyone agrees with, seems to be too much for them.

No one's asking for an investigation or for Keith Ellison, a Democrat in Congress from Minnesota and DNC official who is running for Minnesota's attorney general today, to go for one simple reason: The allegations against him that he abused someone he was dating are unsubstantiated. There is almost never any kind of definitive proof in these situations, but top Democrats pushed former Minnesota Democratic senator Al Franken out after EIGHT women shared similar stories of him allegedly groping them.

Do you think they aren't offering a defense because he expects Trump to pardon him so he doesn't care if he's found guilty?

Unless Manafort has writing in blood or something from Trump that he'll get a pardon, that would be an extremely risky decision. I've written about the political problems Trump would face in pardoning his friends and allies here. Basically: It wouldn't look good for a president who claims he's innocent. 

I don't even have a question/comment for you this week. So thanks for taking questions, sorry I don't have one. I think I'll go find how bad Brad and Angie are doing. Don't judge. I'm on my lunch hour.

Wait are they together again? Thanks for chiming in even if it sounds like you're as burnt out on politics as I am some days. 

Does the President and GOP have a Corruption Problem, or just a perception one?

You're referring to this analysis I wrote after New York congressman Chris Collins was indicted on insider trading last week. Democrats feel like they can use Trump and his allies' various, unrelated legal problems to argue that the entire Republican-controlled Washington is in power to help themselves.

To answer your question: that's for the courts to figure out. 

When it's all said and done, do you think the Texas Senate race or the Tennessee Senate race will be closer? I fully expect the GOP to win both, but the demographics point to Texas being closer, while the candidate and the fact it's an open seat point to Tennessee being closer. What say you?

Right now, Tennessee. I explain why here. Basically, in Tennessee, former Democratic governor Phil Bredesen has consistently shown he is competitive, even perhaps the leader in that open Senate race. In Texas, congressman Beto O'Rourke has flashes of competitiveness (raising millions, getting buzz on the left, a handful of polls showing him close to Sen. Ted Cruz (R)), but O'Rourke has yet to show consistently show he's a threat in Texas.

I learned my lesson not to put too much weight on polling but I am curious the Democrats polls numbers seem to keep microscopically inching down. I would never bet cash on polling but what do you think this trend says?

Nah I wouldn't read too much into it. As long as Democrats are in the 6-8 percentage range on Election Day, history suggests they have a good chance to take back the House.

At first I thought that Omarosa's book would be a whole lot of nothing. But the spark, fanned by everyone from Kellyanne to Trump himself is now a raging fire when silence from the WH would have been the better course in my view. So, Amber, how damaging will this be to to the GOP and how many percentage points could be shaved from the in the upcoming election?

It certainly is sucking up a lot of attention right now ,and you're right that the White House's -- really, Trump's -- proclivity to fight back seems to only up the drama. But I have yet to see any evidence this affects the midterms, or even sticks to Trump. This story is like the biggest kid on the playground for a week. Now if there is irrefutable proof of Trump saying the "n" word, as Omarosa alleges, let's talk. But that's a big if. 

President Trump was in our neck of the woods here in Central New York yesterday stumping for Caludia Tenney. I also read that Trump plans to get out to these rallies as well as his own rallies a lot this fall. Do you know how this compares to previous presidents? I mean, it seems like he's out holding rallies instead of, well, um, you know, solving our problems and running the country?

Well, there's not much happening in Washington right now -- half of Congress is out, the other half (the Senate) could leave any day now. So it's not unusual during campaign season for a president to, well, go campaign. That being said, what is unusual is for Trump to go campaign and barely mention the candidates he's campaigning for. Yesterday he pronounced Rep. Elise Stefanik's (R-NY) name wrong as he invited her on stage!

Any sense of when we might see a final count for Ohio's 12th? Will it be before November?

I know! These candidates have to run again in just a few months. Election officials are counting some 8,000 absentee and provisional ballots right now, and then it's possible Democrat Danny O'Connor asks for a recount. So this could take weeks. 

Hi Amber -- thanks for taking questions today. Even though we still have the mid-terms to get through, there's already talk that he might take on Trump in 2020. What do you think? Plausible or just a never-Trumper fantasy?

I kinda think he's going to run in 2020. I have no insider knowledge to bolster that claim, he just feels to be enjoying the spotlight being one of the leading anti-Trump Republicans brings him. And I wish I didn't have to say this, but it's never too soon to start talking about the next presidential election. The past one officially started when Ted Cruz announced his presidency some 500 days before the election!

Like so much else during this administration, the Omarosa revelations do not appear to be moving the needle any. What would it take to move the needle (either for most Republicans to turn against Trump, or most Democrats to accept Trump).

I tried to answer this question a bit higher, but I'll elaborate here. It seems like voters' opinions of Trump are pretty set and, predictably for this day in age, set by partisanship. I don't know what on earth will or could change that. It certainly hasnt happened yet. 

Virginia 6th representative Bob Goodlatte is retiring after a long career in the House. Delegate Ben Cline and former staffer to Goodlatte was selected as the Republican to succeed him. The 6th is a pretty Republican district, so even with the best Democratic year, Cline was in no real danger of losing. But what do you make of Goodlatte's son, Bobby, coming out for the Democratic challenger and criticizing his dad, who he said ruined fired FBI agent Peter Strzok by "political grandstanding"?

It's certainly weird, and worth craning your neck to watch play out. But I don't see this as part of some bigger anti-GOP trend in Virginia. All families fight, right? The Post's Virginia politics reporter, Jenna Portnoy, has more here.

The 538 site has been showing a narrowing gap between the generic Democrat and the generic Republican vote, mainly because of a decline on the Democrat side. Would this be because some Democrats are espousing mainstream values like Medicare for all and increase minimum wages, or is it because some are still exposing more conservative values?

I answered this earlier, but the generic ballot has gone up and down over the past few months ,and it's hard to pin it on any one thing. I wouldn't read too much into its ticks up and down until we get to mid to late October.

Can Robert Mueller investigate Trump's NDAs that he made White House (i.e., federal) employees sign? (After all, the Whitewater investigation veered totally off into the Monica Lewinsky matter).

This isn't answering your question here, because I have yet to talk to any legal experts about it. So I'm thinking out loud. Women who allege they had affairs with Trump have been asking the courts to nullify their NDAs

Wouldn't that strip Manafort of his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination in any further questioning from, say, the Mueller investigation, or any further trials? That strikes me as a risky bet for Trump.

Yup, at least one legal expert I spoke to about pardons thinks that's a possibility. 

Clearly whether there's a strategy or compulsion behind it, Trump lives by the dictum that all news is good news. Yet isn't there an old saw that the middle of the American electorate eventually tire of a leader -- even those they fundamentally like? That's why B Clinton was replaced by his political and personality opposite despite Clinton's continued popularity. Same with Obama. Enough people get tired of the same-old and seek a change. While Trump is at grave risk of losing reelection -- having barely won in three critical states where he's now underwater; having significantly disenchanted potentially 20% of the people who DID vote for him (losses he can't afford) -- isn't it a more intractable threat to him that the American middle will just be done with him? That what he's doing animates maybe 30% of the electorate in his favor, 30% against...but that 40% will just be exhausted and will seek any remedy?

Sure, that scenario of voters just being tired of Trump drama and voting him out in 2020 is possible. I'm not sure that's traditionally what drives voters to the polls, but we are in unpredictable times.

What elections will you be looking at when the polls close?

I'm looking to see if Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) wins his primary to be attorney general with unsubtantiated abuse allegations thrown at him a few days before the election.

I'm looking to see how many Republican voters turn out to vote in competitive open governor and Senate primaries in Minnesota, as a gauge for how competitive that state will be in November.

I'm watching pretty much everything in Wisconsin -- the Democratic primary for governor to challenge GOP Gov. Scott Walker, the Republican primary for Senate to challenge Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) and the Democratic primary in House Speaker Paul Ryan's (R) seat. 

What are the charges in Paul Manafort's 2nd trial in Sept.? Do you know why there are 2 trials instead of one big trial all the charges?

Good question.

His next trial will be in DC and it's on charges of failing to register as a lobbyist with the foreign government and conspiring to tamper with witnesses. (back story on that here. those allegations put Manafort in jail.)

I believe the location of the alleged crimes determines where the trial needs to happen and, thus, how many there are. 

Even if Trump used the "n" word on tape, wouldn't that just be another line that Republicans will call "unfortunate," disappointing," or just ignore? Thank you for taking questions on yet another busy week!

I honestly don't know. I've seen enough moments of Republicans in Congress being deferential to Trump when I thought they wouldn't to no longer be surprised. I've even wondered what, if anything, will be the last straw for Congress on Trump.

But they do it on the very DAY that requires their replacements to come from the (R) Governor. How is this going to play out?

I'm talking to some judicial independence advocates later this afternoon who worry this is part of a national trend of politicians trying to restack the courts in their favor ahead of the courts playing a pivotal role in 2020 redistricting. But some of these justices in West Virginia have been accused of extravagant spending

There were some attorneys on MSNBC last night saying that this isn't at all unusual. If you believe you have already done as much damage as you can to the prosecution witnesses and you don't have anything that can make the documents look false, all you do when you call people is give the prosecutors a chance to rip them to shreds. If they had something they would use it. If they don't, well, this is a real trial, not a TV show. Sometimes you don't have anything that will help.

That seems reasonable

Smart, woke, intelligent, handsome, talented -- and what a great First Lady Chrissy Teigen would be!!!

Ha I was wondering how long in this chat until I got a John Legend question/comment. (He wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post, published today, arguing that Louisiana's practice of allowing someone to be convicted without a unanimous jury is an inherently racist policy.) 

I'll also point out that is wife is pretty active in politics on Twitter.

Is it really OK for a campaign to pay multiple people thousands of dollars per month for a fake campaign job? Certainly not ethical but is it even legal?

The Fix's Aaron Blake looked at this question. According to a few campaign experts, it might be okay legally. From Blake's piece:

In this case, about the only campaign finance question would be whether this would be considered a legitimate campaign expense, said election-law expert Rick Hasen of the University of California, Irvine.

“I’m not sure I’ve seen a campaign try to claim hush money as a legitimate expense, but of course the whole point of the Stormy Daniels payments controversy is that they were not made from the campaign account and reported when they were campaign related,” Hasen said.

You called them "unsubstantiated" but 3 friends of the accuser have come forward to say that she told them about the incident in the months after it happened. Unless a video really does exist, what would be able to move these allegations into "substantiated"?

I missed the news of three friends saying she told them about the incident after it happened, which is generally what we mean by trying to substantiate these allegations. However, in this case, her son did say he saw a video, which does up the bar a bit on how to describe substantiated. 

There are scheduled elections in 2020 so it's not really an opportunity to stack the court before redistricting. But what the GOP have done re the timing here stinks

My understanding is by those 2020 elections, new justices appointed by the state's Democrat-turned-Republican governor would have had 2.5 years on the bench, which gives them the advantage of incumbency -- a powerful advantage in politics. (West Virginia elects its Supreme Court justices). 

Okay, thanks for a great chat! 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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