Thursday, October 3, 2019

BTRTN September 2019 Month in Review: Ukraine Gamechanger

Tom with the BTRTN September 2019 Month in Review.


Image result for september 2019 calendar·        A government whistleblower made a complaint against President Trump, alleging that Trump pressured the President of Ukraine to re-open a baseless investigation against Joe Biden and Hunter Biden.  The White House released a summary (not a transcript) of the call, which revealed that Trump did indeed ask for such a favor, while at the same time linking the favor     with providing continued U.S. aid to the Ukrainians.  He had put a hold on nearly $400 million of such aid prior to the call.  In the ensuing days, it was revealed that the White House had taken great  pains to “lock down” the conversation to prevent it from coming to light, using unusual storage practices, suggesting that a cover up was underway at the time of the whistleblower complaint.

·        In the wake of the allegations House Speaker Nancy Pelosi formally announced a formal impeachment inquiry was to begin.  This ended months of cautious maneuvering by Pelosi as the Democratic caucus debated the merits of impeachment, balancing a moral obligation to defend the Constitution with a political imperative to defeat Trump in 2020.  Given that more Americans opposed than favored impeachment Trump, Pelosi’s calculus to date was that a failure to remove Trump from office would backfire and potentially propel him to reelection.  But the Ukraine revelations – which had the phone call as their centerpiece – promptly opened the floodgates within the caucus supporting impeachment and forced her hand.

·        Neither Trump nor Biden saw their fortunes change in the immediate aftermath of the revelations.  Trump’s approval rating was steadfast in the low-to-mid 40% range, and Biden continued to lead the national polls among Democrats.  But American opinion on impeachment did indeed shift as the revelations mounted, with polls indicating support for impeachment inching ahead of opposition.


The whistleblower report absolutely dominated the month, upending, in one fell swoop, Trump’s desire to move past the Mueller report; the Democrats’ desire to further the Russia investigation and other assorted allegations through ongoing investigations; Pelosi’s desire to avoid impeachment proceedings; the 2020 candidates’ collective desires to focus attention on their campaigns and the future; and candidate Biden in particular, who found himself at the epicenter of the controversy.

The main offences revealed in the “summary” of the call (which was eventually released by the White House on the misguided judgment that the call was exculpatory), the whistleblower report itself, and the aftermath are seismic:

·        Just one day after Robert Mueller testified (sort of) on Capitol Hill on the final report of his investigation, which said the Trump team’s many discussions with Russian officials in 2016 did not add up to a “conspiracy” (the legal term for “collusion”) to influence the 2016 presidential election, Trump essentially offered to collude with Ukraine to do the same in 2020. 

·        Trump not only requested the “favor” of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to re-open an investigation into Hunter Biden’s board work in Ukraine and Joe Biden’s alleged efforts to quash an investigation of that company (no wrongdoing was ever found), as well as an ask to look into the “Crowdstrike” issue (a reference to the quest for Hillary Clinton’s missing server that has been rumored by conspiracy theorists to be in Ukrainian hands).  He also hinged future American aid to Ukraine (nearly $400 million of congressionally-authorized funds that Trump put on hold before the call) on that favor, thereby mixing self-interested politics with foreign policy, as naked an abuse of power as one could imagine.

·        The whistleblower further alleged that White House officials sought to “lock down” the evidence of the call, bypassing typical practices for dissemination and electronic storage of the call “summary,” instead opting for far more secure treatment typically reserved for calls that deeply influence national security, which this, plainly, was not.  This is commonly known as a “cover up.”

·        Ultimately it was revealed that this same practice was used for other sensitive phone calls with Vladimir Putin and Saudi Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

·        And, it was revealed that Trump had also pressured the Australian government to open an investigation into the origins of the Mueller investigation, which involved an Australian diplomat and Trump campaign operative George Papadopoulos.

Among those who have been involved in varying degrees are Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani (who met with Ukrainian officials to stir the Biden investigation pot), Attorney General William Barr (Trump offered as a contact to the Ukraine for the investigations), Mike Pompeo (who was on the call, though he failed to reveal that initially, and has to respond to Giuliani charges that he was acting under State Department authority) and Mike Pence (the uber-loyal lackey).

Doubtless more will emerge in the coming months.  But in the days following the whistleblower revelations the ranks of Democrats joining the impeachment bandwagon began to swell.  Particularly notable was an op-ed by seven freshman Democrats, all with national security experience, all in “vulnerable” districts (the kind most likely to oppose impeachment) who signed on to an impeachment inquiry and stated that the allegations, if true, were impeachable offences.  Pelosi concluded she had no choice but to formally open the inquiry.

Pelosi and her leadership team made some very specific choices with respect to the impeachment process.  There would be no vote to formalize the inquiry, to protect vulnerable members from such a record.  The six committees currently investigating Trump would continue; there would be no consolidated effort.  The impeachment inquiry would focus just on the Ukraine-related charges, not the Mueller/Russia-related ones.  And the entire inquiry would be completed, including a full House vote on the articles of impeachment, by Thanksgiving, if possible, to avoid bleeding too much in 2020 and distracting from the 2020 election campaigns.

Trump’s response to all this has been unsurprising.  Trump’s team, including Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, has come under attack for unpreparedness and not having a “War Room” set up to organize the defense.  But the fact is, there is a War Room, and it is the Oval Office.  Trump’s Twitterfeed is the primary weapon of choice, with Lindsay Graham’s mouth, unchecked by his soul, the secondary weapon.  Trump, predictably, has followed the Mueller defense pattern, blasting the whistleblower and Adam Schiff (both “should be arrested for treason”), those who gave the whistleblower information (“spies”) as well as the media (“scum” and “animals”).  He also endorsed (via re-tweeting) the notion of a “Civil War” occurring if he was removed from office.

The post-Mueller playbook also appears to be in use for the White House response.  Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already said he will not allow his diplomats to testify, and thus the stonewalling begins.  But the Dems now have a strategy in response.  Instead of filing lawsuits that could take years to resolve (that is, after the 2020 election), they are simply saying that, with every stonewall, the Trump team is building the case for an “obstruction of Congress” article of impeachment (one of Nixon’s articles was for just such a charge).

The GOP is not exactly falling in line with Trump.  Some of the usual suspects have expressed dismay with the Ukraine revelations, including Senators Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse, and a few Republican governors have stepped up as well.  And, more surprisingly, Senator Chuck Grassley surprisingly broke with Trump by defending the whistleblower.  But no GOP representative has come out to support the impeachment inquiry.

But what is most striking is the silence.  Apart from Graham and Representative Jim Jordan, few Republicans have picked up the talking points from the Trump team and taken that message to the airwaves.  Essentially, it is only Trump, Rudy Giuliani (himself mired armpit-deep in the scandal), Graham, a few others and the conservative media who are playing defense.  And no one has heard a peep from Attorney General William Barr, who was mentioned multiple times as a potential contact for Ukraine on the call, and has thus far failed to recuse himself from the case.

The polls tell a story of America in flux.  Most polls had previously shown support for impeachment in the 40% range, and opposition over 50%, but now there has been upward movement on the pro-impeachment side.  A CNN poll has 47% now favoring impeachment, up from 41% in May; opposition to impeachment dropped from 54% to 45%.  Morning Consult has similar numbers, 46% to 43%.

By the way, if you ever doubted the wisdom of Alexander Hamilton, he stated in 1788 that he believed that impeachment will "agitate the passions of the whole community, and … divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused. In many cases, it will connect itself with preexisting factions and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or the other."

There were other notable events in the month, but they were clearly subordinated to Ukraine Gate.  The Trump Administration announced that it was limiting refugees allowed into the United States at 18,000, a far cry from President Obama’s last limit of 110,000.  Trump also got a boost from the Supreme Court in a ruling upholding a Trump policy requiring migrants to be denied asylum by another country before applying to the U.S. for the same. 

The quest for Congress to enact some form of gun control legislation with Trump’s signature was already in peril (given Trump’s strong signaling that he would not support anything, including background checks), but UkraineGate put the final nail in the coffin, and gave the GOP a talking point for avoiding action (“the Dems got in the way with this impeachment thing”).  Trump fired National Security Advisor John Bolton, and the two could not even agree on the sequence of events that led to his departure (Bolton claims he resigned first). 

An important Saudi oil refinery was attacked, presumably by Iran, offering more evidence that the Trump pull-out from the Iran nuclear deal was a campaign promise enacted without a strategy.  The Iranians have responded to the pull-out and reinstatement of sanctions not by crawling back to the negotiating table (as Trump assumed) but by a series of aggressive actions and a defiant tone. 

And the normal madness from the stable genius continued.  He actually invited the Taliban to Camp David to negotiate an Afghanistan peace agreement, only to have to cancel it when the Taliban acted, well, like terrorists, in a suicide bombing that killed an America soldier. We can only assume the Taliban would have had a nice suite at the Trump International while they stayed.

Most insane of all was the Hurricane Dorian contretemps, in which Trump incorrectly placed Alabama in the path of the monster storm, and instead of simply admitting his error and moving on, spent the better part of the week claiming it was true.  This included putting huuuuge pressure on the National Weather Service to support his erroneous claim.  And, most laughably, prominent in the defense was a map he used that clearly benefited from a sharpie-doctored line extending a storm path into Alabama.  Somewhere Rose Mary Woods is smiling, knowing there was another entry in cover-up photo ops that rivaled her contorted gymnastics in explaining how she erased 18 minutes of Nixon tapes.

And so it goes…


Trump’s approval rating rose by a negligible one percentage point in the month of August, from 43% to 44%.  His approval rating has now fallen within the 40-45% range for the 21th consecutive month.  But Trump's rating, while operating in a narrow band, has inched upward over the course of 2019.





The Trumpometer declined in the month of September, from +12 to +10.  The +10 Trumpometer reading means that, on average, our five economic measures are +10% higher than they were at the time of Trump’s Inauguration, per the chart below (and with more explanation of methodology below). 

The key drivers of the dip were a decline in consumer confidence (from 135 to 125) and a rise in gas prices (from $2.66 to $2.74).  The Dow saw healthy growth in the month and is now 36% higher than it was when Trump took office.  There was no change in the unemployment rating and also no change in the third estimate for Q2 GDP. 

The “Trumpometer” was designed to allow an objective answer to the economically-driven question of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  The Trumpometer now stands at +10, which means that Donald Trump can definitively claim that the answer to that question is “yes.”  (Whether he deserves credit for that score is another matter.)

Trump did fall below the 50% approval mark in his handling of the economy for the first time in a long time, according to the average of 11 polls taken of this measure in September.  He fell from 50% in August to 49% in September.  This is the first time he has dropped below 50% since January.  (One could also note that his rating on foreign affairs dipped below 40%.)

End Clinton  1/20/2001
End Bush 1/20/2009
End Obama 1/20/2017 (Base = 0)
Trump 8/31/2019
Trump 9/30/2019
% Chg. Vs. Inaug. (+ = Better)
  Unemployment Rate
  Consumer Confidence
  Price of Gas
  Dow Jones

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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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