Friday, May 3, 2019

BTRTN April 2019 Month in Review: The Mueller Report is Over! Long Live the Mueller Report!

Tom with the BTRTN April 2019 Month in Review.


The Mueller report was finally released on April 18, redacted in part and preceded by another volley from Trump’s ever-spinning personal attorney, oops, that is, Attorney General William Barr.  The man charged with representing U.S. citizens and protecting the laws of the land held a press conference in advance of the release, and continued the self-demolition job on his own reputation earned across decades in Washington.

Image result for april, 2019 calendarAnd thus began the sequel, or sequels, to the Mueller Report.  One can count at least six different tracks that the release has spawned, all of which will play out in the coming months as we careen towards 2020.   But before we get to them, here are the basics. 

The Mueller Report concluded persuasively (with indictments galore) that the Russians in fact had attempted to manipulate the 2016 election, and in favor of Trump at the expense of Hillary Clinton. 

But that primary conclusion was, in effect, settled long ago, and the real drama concerned Mueller’s verdict on the twin questions that have dominated the Trump presidency since Mike Flynn was fired as National Security Advisor just weeks after the Inauguration:  did the Trump team collude (or, more legalistically, conspire) with the Russians and did Trump commit obstruction of justice?

The Mueller report concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone in the Trump campaign or administration with colluding/conspiring with the Russians in connection with the 2016 election.  There was much smoke, to be sure, but not enough for criminal charges to be levied against anyone, including Trump himself. 

On obstruction of justice, Mueller was far more damning.  While he declined to charge Trump with obstruction -- in accordance with Department of Justice guidelines the preclude indicting a sitting president – Volume II of the report left a trail of bread crumbs worthy of an entire Pepperidge Farm factory for Congress to pursue the case on its own.  He pointedly concluded that he did have the ability to exonerate Trump from obstruction charges -- but could not do so given the evidence.  But he did not have the power to indict, so he left that to Congress,and provided them with a boatload of evidence.

And thus we arrive on April 18, with Barr once again inserting himself directly into the process. Back in March, when Mueller had delivered his report to the DOJ, Barr took all of 48 hours to review the 400 page tome and issue his own four-page summary that inaccurately characterized Mueller’s findings as a clean bill of health for Trump: no collusion and no obstruction. The problem was that Barr had grossly mischaracterized Mueller’s language about obstruction. Barr had actively and willfully mislead the public: Mueller overtly cited the DOJ policy of not indicting a sitting president as a core reason for his unwillingness to issue an indictment. Barr made it seem that the lack of an indictment was simply a function of a lack of evidence.  Barr’s wildly misleading “summary” gave Trump a four-week window to ram home the “no collusion/no obstruction” line while Barr took his time redacting.

In April, just hours before the release of the redacted report, Barr again sought to frame the report in terms most favorable to Trump, this time in a press conference.  But when the report came out later that same morning, even in redacted form it revealed the far more damning position that Mueller had actually taken.  Mueller demonstrated that Trump essentially did everything within his power to obstruct the investigation, short of firing the entire Mueller team, the entire FBI, and anyone whom he remotely considered to be a member of the Deep State.  Perhaps the most consequential (and memorable) statement in the entire report was this one:

"The President's efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his request.”

Obviously Mueller believed Trump himself had attempted to obstruct justice repeatedly, and was a least partially successful.  So, with the actual release of the report, thus began the Mueller mutation, with, as stated, at least six different new tracks to follow from here:

·         The quest for the unredacted report:  Since Barr’s behavior was so obviously partial, the Democrats want to see the completely unredacted report.  Representative Jerry Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has vowed to issue subpoenas to achieve that goal.

·         Barr’s behavior.  Barr’s May 1 testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, on the heels of the revelation that Mueller wrote Barr a letter complaining that Barr had misrepresented his investigation with the four-page summary, threw the Attorney General’s behavior into the spotlight, with scores of Democrat’s calling for his resignation or impeachment.  His testimony revealed he had lied in previous (April 9) congressional testimony when he stated that he had no idea what Mueller thought of this report.  Barr subsequently declared he would not testify to the House as planned on May 2.

·         Democratic investigations.  The Democrats have begun a series of investigations designed to illuminate the major findings of the Mueller investigation, and augment them.  Representative Adam Schiff of the House Intelligence Committee is taking the “follow the money” tack, hot on the heels of Deutchse Bank/Trump connections (and Capital One as well), while Representative Richard Neal, Chairman of Ways and Means, wants Trump’s taxes.  And Nadler wants former White House Counsel Don McGahn to testify.  This is all continue ad nauseum, although we all reached nauseum long ago. 

·         Trump’s War on Congress.  Essentially, the Trump White House is refusing to cooperate with any of these investigations, preferring to “slow walk” document requests or outright defy them, not allowing witnesses to testify (see: McGahn), instead inviting the time-sucking, court-inducing subpoena process, trying to run out the clock until November, 2020.  But Trump will find it difficult to prevent Mueller himself from testifying, which he will in May, the next “must see” event in the drama.

·         The 14 on-going investigations.  The White House won’t be able to do rope-a-dope the 14 investigations that the Mueller Report spawned, only two of which had been known to the general public (one involving Michael Cohen and the other Obama White House Counsel Greg Craig) prior to the release of the report.  The other 12 (all redacted) involve “potential criminal activity” that was “out of scope” of the Mueller probe and have been referred to the Justice Department.  Perhaps someone beside Schiff is following the money as well.

·         The impeachment question.  And then there is the biggest question of them all:  should the Democrats pursue impeachment?  The party was busy cleaving itself on that one, per a time-honored Democratic Party tradition (remember the old line:  “I belong to no organized political party; I’m a Democrat.”)  The raging argument centered on defining the “right thing to do.”  Should the Dems impeach because Trump is clearly unfit for office, or play the realpolitik game of not allowing Trump to claim exoneration if the Senate fails to convict, which most assuredly would be the outcome?  Nancy Pelosi holds the cards on this one, and she continues to be the deftest player around the table.  This will clearly be another enormous test of her ability to keep the caucus unified as the investigations and revelations continue.

And so it goes.

The Mueller/Post-Meuller hysteria was not the only event of the month.  Trump decided (with Stephen Miller egging him on) to purge the entire leadership of the Department of Homeland Security, frustrated with lack of progress on the immigration issue, whatever he defines as progress.  Whatever the thought process, he wants more “toughness” than Kirstjen Nielsen apparently had to offer, and Trump’s latest gambits, under Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan include even more restrictions on asylum seekers.

It was a good month for the economy, as the Trumpometer jumped back to +20 (more on that below).  Trump continues to eye the Fed warily, but both of his latest nominees to the Fed, Herman Cain and Stephen Moore, were forced to withdraw based on limited prospects of Senate approval given dubious track records related to women (between the two of them they covered the gamut from sexist jokes to harassment charges). 

And the month ended with the rather unlikely prospect of harmony between Trump, Chuck and Nancy on the long-awaited bi-partisan dream, a massive infrastructure bill.   The trio apparently agreed on a number -- $2 trillion, no less – but deferred discussion on the sources of funding for another day.  Trump apparently believes it should be funded by the government, anathema to conservatives who favor the more traditional GOP funding sources (e.g., lean on the states, or provide tax incentives for business investment).  You can be sure they are not going to roll back that tax cut.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden finally joined the Democratic race and quickly surged to an even more dominant position in the polls in the early going, and his entry inspired some 60 tweets from Trump, the fear showing.  We will be back in two weeks with our 2020 Vision feature on the ongoing campaign, with a full update, as the Democratic field now numbers an astonishing 21.


In the face of the release of the Mueller report and the resultant furor, one thing remained constant:  Donald Trump’s approval rating, which remained fixed at 42% for the month (and showed no change after the April 18 release date).  America remains as entrenched as ever between Trump supporters and bashers.  And this rigidity is bad news for Trump – 42% is simply a terrible place to be heading into 2020.  He needs some upward catalyst for reelection, and with legislative achievement unlikely and foreign affairs difficult to manage, that catalyst is hard to identify.





The “Trumpometer” jumped in April from March, from +11 to +20, due to solid increases in the GDP (the Q1 first report coming in at a surprising +3.2%) and the Dow.  Consumer Confidence also rose, and the only blemish was a sharp rise in gas prices to nearly $3 a gallon on average nationwide.  The +20 Trumpometer reading means that, on average, our five economic measures are +20% higher than they were at the time of Trump’s Inauguration, per the chart below (and with more explanation of methodology below).  The economy continues to be Trump’s strongest card, although, oddly, he rarely talks about it.  But with signs of slowdown still apparent, Trump is in a tough race to get to Election Day without a major speedbump, which, if it occurred, could doom him.

End Clinton  1/20/2001
End Bush 1/20/2009
End Obama 1/20/2017 (Base = 0)
Trump 3/31/2019
Trump 4/30/2019
% 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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