Friday, March 1, 2019

BTRTN: Trump's February Ends With a Bang AND a Whimper

Tom with the BTRTN February 2019 Month in Review.


Image result for michael cohen and kim jong-un
After a January that was completely dominated by a single issue, Trump’s government shutdown over his  border wall, February reverted to form, as “breaking news” erupted almost daily across a range of issues.  If you can find a narrative for the month, it was the interweaving of three themes:  Trump continuing to torture himself on immigration with his wildly unpopular “national emergency” declaration; Trump pivoting to foreign affairs (to change the subject) and coming up empty; and more shocking revelations from various Russia-and-more investigations just ahead of the release of the Mueller report.  The month ended in utterly epic fashion with Michael Cohen testifying against Trump for three days on Capitol Hill, while Trump fumed helplessly from Vietnam, in the midst of doomed denuclearization negotiations.

Image result for michael cohen testifies
You can blame Mitch McConnell, to some extent, for the “national emergency” declaration, as McConnell vowed to support Trump on that step in return for getting Trump’s signature on the bi-partisan budget accord that averted yet another shutdown.  McConnell was faced with an exceedingly distasteful choice – either preside over the next shutdown, which clearly would be even more unpopular than the first one, or allow Trump to usurp Congressional appropriations authority via the national emergency route.  He went with Door #2.

His thought process, one suspects, is that the courts (including the GOP-friendly Supreme Court) will rule against the national emergency – and congressional appropriation prerogatives will remain intact.  But that is quite a gamble.  If the Roberts/Thomas/Alito/Gorsuch/Kavanaugh coalition backs the president, McConnell will be hoist on its own petard.  He considers the Gorsuch and Kavanaugh appointments to be his legacy; one can’t miss the irony if they back Trump in usurping the Congress, and clear the way for future Democratic presidents to declare similar national emergencies (with more validity) on climate change, gun control, healthcare, poverty and the like.

The opposition forces moved quickly to counter the "national emergency": on the legislative front, the House voted "against," with 13 GOP representatives joining the Dems.  The Senate now has roughly two weeks to put it to a vote, and there have already been three GOP defections (out of four required, assuming the Dems hold as a unit) to achieve a full Congressional turndown.  Trump will presumably veto the turndown, since he likely has enough GOP support to withstand an override.  But the legal track is underway as well, 16 states have filed lawsuits against Trump’s action to begin what will be a lengthy court process.

Presidents traditionally turn to foreign affairs to distract the voting public from domestic messiness, and Trump was handed an easy one (politically) with the unrest in Venezuela.  The crisis there was precipitated when the January 10 re-election of incumbent strongman Nicolas Maduro was declared void by the head of the legislature, Juan Guaido, who declared himself the president instead.  Trump, somewhat uncharacteristically, back Guaido over the strongman, and there was a rare moment of unity as virtually all U.S. and western policy makers aligned against Maduro.

But the other Trump-initiated foreign policy efforts, with China on trade and North Korea on their nuclear arsenal, fared less well.  The backdrop was the general feeling was that Trump was being played in both negotiations.  While the China trade deal is still being negotiated, it is difficult to see why China would fundamentally alter their economic infrastructure to placate a president who could very well be gone within two years.  Trump’s declaration of an extension of the talks may be because, as he states, they are making progress.  Or, it could simply be a delaying tactic that could be demonstrating precisely the opposite.  In any event, Trump’s deadline for making a deal came and went.

North Korea offered no such extension opportunity.  Trump rushed into Summit Two with even less preparation than the first summit.  He had been warned by his staff that North Korea was quite dug in on their demands which were, essentially, relief on sanctions before any denuclearization occurred.  This position happens to be the mirror image of the U.S. position, with a chasm in between.  Anyone in America could have advised Trump of the same, since Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates publicly made the same general case in congressional testimony that enraged Trump (and started loud rumors of Coates’ perilous hold on his job).

Thus it was no real surprise that the summit ended almost as soon as it started.  The failure was so dramatic that Trump actually earned some points simply for not agreeing to some horrendous face-saving deal, such as, say, ending the Korean War (something North Korea badly wants) in return for, well, absolutely nothing.  But whatever goodwill Trump might have scored be declining to do an insanely bad deal was quickly mitigated by his absolutely revolting support of North Korea’s murderous dictator in the hideous Otto Warmbier affair. Trump once again accepted the strongman’s insistence that he was not involved, much the same as Trump accepting the denials of Putin (on election meddling) and the Crown Prince (on the Khashoggi murder).  One can only imagine what the Warmbier’s are thinking.

Michael Cohen’s public testimony to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was, essentially, the first compelling public testimony of any kind in the entire Russia-gate set of investigations, since Mueller and the Southern District of New York have conducted their investigations privately while the GOP-controlled Congress refused to do any serious investigating.   Cohen did not disappoint.  What have we come to when a third-rate, slime ball felon like Cohen shows more decorum and credibility under congressional interrogation than our last nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh?

The GOP representatives spent virtually every minute of their allotted time discrediting Cohen, who was certainly an easy and deserving target.  Having said that, Cohen’s cogent description of Trump’s attitudes and methods of operation rang true. Cohen, who has every incentive not to lie (he could only expose himself to a longer jail sentence), offered up evidence (including a check signed by Trump, part of the Stormy Daniels payment), juicy tidbits about Roger Stone, and enough bread crumbs to keep the Democrats busy for quite a while, including Cohen’s indication that the White House lawyers reviewed and edited the script that included the lies he told Congress in the first place.

Particularly intriguing were Cohen’s specificity around the sordid scheme to pay off Daniels; his revelation that he knew of illegal matters on other topics that he could not discuss since they were the subject of other investigations (a clear reference to New York); and an unforgettable insider view of the monster of a man he served for a decade.  Cohen painted a portrait of a man, Trump, who manages his affairs with the sordid dexterity of a mob boss, holds racial views that David Dukes would cheer, and treats both the IRS and his own wife with contempt.  It was almost numbing to discover that Trump’s standard line about why he did not disclose his taxes – because he was still under audit – turns out to be the exact opposite of the truth.   The real reason, Cohen said Trump had told him, was because Trump wanted to avoid triggering an audit.  The logical extension of this discussion stunned everyone.  Trump’s claim that the audit prevented him from releasing his taxes had long been viewed as absurd, but it simply hadn’t occurred to anyone that Trump was actually not undergoing an audit at all.  Cohen said that he, Cohen, tried to find evidence of such an audit, and could not.

And so it goes.  It’s become axiomic that Trump likely has more to fear from the Southern District of New York than Mueller, yet this is quite a statement because Mueller seems to have the goods, at the very least, on the Stormy Daniels campaign-lawbreaking scheme.  And if Trump believed that the long-awaited release of the Mueller report would end his troubles, he surely understands that is far from the truth, as the SDNY grinds on and the Democrats are just getting started. 

The bang of Michael Cohen’s public testimony, combined with the whimper of the North Korea talks, surely left the Trump Administration facing one of its lowest moments, with plenty of investigations ahead and no clear catalyst to improve Trump’s fortunes (such as a North Korea or China deal) readily apparent.


Trump’s approval rating ticked down another point for the third straight month, to 41% for February versus 44% in November.  There has not been much “winning” in Trumpworld as of late, and while these drops are minor, they are not immaterial.  It is hard to imagine Trump regaining office in 2020 with a 41% approval rating (unless Howard Schulz becomes a factor), and Trump is running out of catalysts to get him into the 45%+ zone that is the minimal entry point to have a shot at reelection.





The “Trumpometer” declined from January to February, from +23 to +17.  The Dow and consumer confidence recovered sharply, but the economy slowed (with the Q4 GDP at 2.6% versus the 3.4% pace of Q3) and gas prices rose.  The +17 Trumpometer reading means that, on average, our five economic measures are +17% higher than they were at the time of Trump’s Inauguration (with more explanation of methodology below).

End Clinton  1/20/2001
End Bush 1/20/2009
End Obama 1/20/2017 (Base = 0)
Trump 1/31/2019
Trump 2/28/2019
% Chg. Vs. Inaug. (+ = Better)
  Unemployment Rate
  Consumer Confidence
  Price of Gas
  Dow Jones

Notes on methodology:

BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters.  The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.

For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.

The Trumpometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Trump Inaugural on January 20, 2017, on an average percentage change basis... The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump took office.  The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline, and the GDP. 

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