Jeff Sessions Had No Choice

Via The New York Times Editorial Board:

It’s no great credit to Attorney General Jeff Sessions that he finally recused himself from all Justice Department investigations relating to the 2016 presidential campaign — and specifically from all current or future inquiries into Russian attempts to influence the election. Short of tendering his resignation, he had no other real choice.

Mr. Sessions, who was President Trump’s first and most ardent supporter in the Senate, as well as a top national security adviser to the Trump campaign, was never in a position to serve as an impartial arbiter of any investigation involving Mr. Trump or his campaign. But until Thursday he refused to cede control over Justice Department investigations into contacts between the campaign and the Russian government.

That stance became untenable on Wednesday night, after The Washington Post reported that, while testifying at his confirmation hearings in January, Mr. Sessions had failed to disclose two meetings he had with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, during the campaign. In response to a question about connections between Russia and the Trump team, from Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, Mr. Sessions said under oath that he was “not aware of any of those activities.” Then, without prompting, he volunteered, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”

As it turns out, Mr. Sessions met twice with Mr. Kislyak, once at the Republican National Convention in July, and again in his Senate office in September — around the time that Russian efforts to meddle in the election on behalf of Mr. Trump reached their peak. Still, meeting an ambassador is no crime in itself, which makes Mr. Sessions’s denial even more inexplicable. On Thursday, he said he “never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries” about the campaign. Yet a Trump administration official told CNBC’s John Harwood that Mr. Sessions had talked about the election with the ambassador, if only in “superficial” terms.

Mr. Sessions is the latest administration official to be caught between his words and the truth on Russia. Just a few weeks ago, the president fired Michael Flynn, his national security adviser, for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.

Mr. Sessions’s recusal is only a first necessary step. The second must be the appointment of a special counsel — an independent, nonpartisan actor who can both investigate and prosecute any criminal acts in relation to Russian interference, whether by Mr. Sessions or anyone else. That’s the only way an investigation can have credibility with the public. Simply shifting investigative authority to one of Mr. Sessions’s deputies, who report to him on all other matters, would do nothing to cure the underlying conflict.

More here.

It’s now political suicide for Republicans if they don’t call for deeper investigations on Russia

Chris Cillizza, reporting for the Washington Post:

President Trump’s Russia problems just got a whole lot worse.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kisylak twice in 2016, according to The Washington Post, conversations that run directly counter to Sessions’s assertions during his confirmation hearing to be the nation’s top cop.

In that Judiciary Committee hearing Jan. 1o, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked Sessions whether he was aware of any contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian intelligence officials. “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians,” Sessions replied.

It does not take a political genius to understand how big a problem this is for Sessions, Trump and congressional Republicans more broadly. (Sessions’s response — I talked to a lot people! — isn’t going to cut it.)

Before this report, most congressional Republicans were resistant to the idea of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the contacts between Russia and Trump campaign officials and surrogates — insisting that the ongoing FBI investigation and congressional committees looking into the issue were more than enough.

That’s going to become an untenable position for Republicans — starting with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — in light of this new information about Sessions. Not only is there a very serious question about whether Sessions misled — purposely or accidentally — his colleagues while under oath, but this is only the latest incident involving unanswered questions about the ties among Trump, his top advisers and Russia.

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn lost his job last month after lying to Vice President Pence — and lots of other people — about the nature of his conversations with Kisylak. Trump has repeatedly refused to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin while insisting that stories about his ties to Russia are “fake news.”

In short: Where there’s smoke and smoke and smoke and smoke and smoke, most reasonable people will assume there is fire — or that there should be an independent investigation to determine whether there is fire. Arguing that “there’s nothing to see here” is simply not a tenable position for Republicans at this point.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R), who has been outspoken in raising doubts about Trump and Russia, was blunt about what needs to happen if Sessions spoke to Kisylak.

I suspect lots of Republicans will follow Graham’s lead over the next 24 or 48 hours. The details here — particularly given the Flynn resignation — almost certainly will force an act of political triage from GOPers. They need to find a way to wall themselves off from what, with each passing day, is becoming more and more toxic. Otherwise, the spillage could leak all over them.

More here.

Trump’s Cabinet has to work as a cleanup crew

Ashley Parker, writing in The Washington Post:

After President Trump said that deporting undocumented immigrants was “a military operation,” Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, speaking in Mexico, clarified that there would be “no use of military force in immigration operations.”

After Trump, standing next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, upended decades of U.S. policy by saying he was open to a one-state solution to the conflict in the Middle East, U.N. envoy Nikki Haley asserted that the United States “absolutely” supports a two-state solution.

And after Trump alarmed European allies by declaring NATO obsolete, Vice President Pence flew to Munich and Brussels, where he reassured a worried continent that the president remains “fully devoted to our transatlantic union.”

One of the unofficial duties of Trump’s Cabinet, it seems, is cleaning up the statements of the man they serve. Five weeks into Trump’s tenure in office, his deputies have found themselves softening, explaining and sometimes outright contradicting the president.

This public and often yawning gulf between Trump and his agency heads has added to the sense of chaos and turmoil emanating from the White House, sending his secretaries scrambling to interpret their boss’s exact positions and leaving other nations confused as to who, exactly, speaks on behalf of the administration.

“It puts the Cabinet officials in an awkward position,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist. “They serve the president and obviously don’t want to contradict him, but at the same time they have to articulate administration policy, which sounds like an oxymoron — contradicting the president by articulating administration policy — but that’s been the case in some instances so far.” 

When Pence traveled to Europe a week ago to offer bland assurances — a message of support for NATO and cooperation with the European Union — he managed to temporarily soothe nervous allies. But diplomats and foreign leaders nonetheless emerged from 21/2 days of meetings with the vice president uncertain if he really spoke on behalf of the president or if his dull diplomacy could yet be undone by a tweet or stray remark from Trump just days later.

And on a diplomatic mission in Mexico City, Kelly chided the press for misreporting and misrepresenting the facts. “Let me be very clear. There will be no — repeat, no — mass deportations,” he said. “There will be no — repeat, no — use of military force in immigration operations. None.”

But the news reports to which Kelly referred were simply quoting Trump himself, who earlier in the day had touted “a military operation” in the United States to help round up and deport undocumented immigrants, whom the president called “really bad dudes.”

Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, ultimately suggested that Trump was using “military” as an adjective referring to the precision and efficiency with which deportations were occurring — not the operations themselves.

Much more here.

Turmoil at the National Security Council, From the Top Down

Via The New York Times:

These are chaotic and anxious days inside the National Security Council, the traditional center of management for a president’s dealings with an uncertain world.

Three weeks into the Trump administration, council staff members get up in the morning, read President Trump’s Twitter posts and struggle to make policy to fit them. Most are kept in the dark about what Mr. Trump tells foreign leaders in his phone calls. Some staff members have turned to encrypted communications to talk with their colleagues, after hearing that Mr. Trump’s top advisers are considering an “insider threat” program that could result in monitoring cellphones and emails for leaks.

The national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, has hunkered down since investigators began looking into what, exactly, he told the Russian ambassador to the United States about the lifting of sanctions imposed in the last days of the Obama administration, and whether he misled Vice President Mike Pence about those conversations. His survival in the job may hang in the balance.

Although Mr. Trump suggested to reporters aboard Air Force One on Friday that he was unaware of the latest questions swirling around Mr. Flynn’s dealings with Russia, aides said over the weekend in Florida — where Mr. Flynn accompanied the president and Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe — that Mr. Trump was closely monitoring the reaction to Mr. Flynn’s conversations. There are transcripts of a conversation in at least one phone call, recorded by American intelligence agencies that wiretap foreign diplomats, which may determine Mr. Flynn’s future.

Stephen Miller, the White House senior policy adviser, was circumspect on Sunday about Mr. Flynn’s future. Mr. Miller said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that possibly misleading the vice president on communications with Russia was “a sensitive matter.” Asked if Mr. Trump still had confidence in Mr. Flynn, Mr. Miller responded, “That’s a question for the president.”

This account of life inside the council — offices made up of several hundred career civil servants who advise the president on counterterrorism, foreign policy, nuclear deterrence and other issues of war and peace — is based on conversations with more than two dozen current and former council staff members and others throughout the government. All spoke on the condition that they not be quoted by name for fear of reprisals.

* * *

A number of staff members who did not want to work for Mr. Trump have returned to their regular agencies, leaving a larger-than-usual hole in the experienced bureaucracy. Many of those who remain, who see themselves as apolitical civil servants, have been disturbed by displays of overt partisanship. At an all-hands meeting about two weeks into the new administration, Ms. McFarland told the group it needed to “make America great again,” numerous staff members who were there said.

New Trump appointees are carrying coffee mugs with that Trump campaign slogan into meetings with foreign counterparts, one staff member said.

Nervous staff members recently met late at night at a bar a few blocks from the White House and talked about purging their social media accounts of any suggestion of anti-Trump sentiments.

Mr. Trump’s council staff draws heavily from the military — often people who had ties to Mr. Flynn when he served as a senior military intelligence officer and then as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency before he was forced out of the job. Many of the first ideas that have been floated have involved military, rather than diplomatic, initiatives.

Much more here.

National security adviser Flynn discussed sanctions with Russian ambassador, despite denials, officials say

Via The Washington Post:

National security adviser Michael Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials, current and former U.S. officials said.

Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were interpreted by some senior U.S. officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration in late December to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 election.

Flynn on Wednesday denied that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak. Asked in an interview whether he had ever done so, he twice said, “No.”

On Thursday, Flynn, through his spokesman, backed away from the denial. The spokesman said Flynn “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”

Officials said this week that the FBI is continuing to examine Flynn’s communications with Kislyak. Several officials emphasized that while sanctions were discussed, they did not see evidence that Flynn had an intent to convey an explicit promise to take action after the inauguration.

Flynn’s contacts with the ambassador attracted attention within the Obama administration because of the timing. U.S. intelligence agencies were then concluding that Russia had waged a cyber campaign designed in part to help elect Trump; his senior adviser on national security matters was discussing the potential consequences for Moscow, officials said.

The talks were part of a series of contacts between Flynn and Kislyak that began before the Nov. 8 election and continued during the transition, officials said. In a recent interview, Kislyak confirmed that he had communicated with Flynn by text message, by phone and in person, but declined to say whether they had discussed sanctions.

The emerging details contradict public statements by incoming senior administration officials including Mike Pence, then the vice president-elect. They acknowledged only a handful of text messages and calls exchanged between Flynn and Kislyak late last year and denied that either ever raised the subject of sanctions.

“They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia,” Pence said in an interview with CBS News last month, noting that he had spoken with Flynn about the matter. Pence also made a more sweeping assertion, saying there had been no contact between members of Trump’s team and Russia during the campaign. To suggest otherwise, he said, “is to give credence to some of these bizarre rumors that have swirled around the candidacy.”

Neither of those assertions is consistent with the fuller account of Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak provided by officials who had access to reports from U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies that routinely monitor the communications of Russian diplomats. Nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

All of those officials said ­Flynn’s references to the election-related sanctions were explicit. Two of those officials went further, saying that Flynn urged Russia not to overreact to the penalties being imposed by President Barack Obama, making clear that the two sides would be in position to review the matter after Trump was sworn in as president.

“Kislyak was left with the impression that the sanctions would be revisited at a later time,” said a former official.

More here.

Trump Clashes Early With Courts, Portending Years of Legal Battles

Peter Baker, writing in The New York Times:

President Trump is barreling into a confrontation with the courts barely two weeks after taking office, foreshadowing years of legal battles as an administration determined to disrupt the existing order presses the boundaries of executive power.

Lawyers for the administration were ordered to submit a brief on Monday defending Mr. Trump’s order temporarily banning refugees from around the world and all visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. An appeals court in California refused on Sunday to reinstate the ban after a lower court blocked it.

As people from the countries targeted by Mr. Trump struggled to make their way to the United States while they could, the president for the second day in a row expressed rage at the judge in the case, this time accusing him of endangering national security. Vice President Mike Pence defended the president’s tone, but lawyers and lawmakers of both parties said Mr. Trump’s comments reflected a lack of respect for the constitutional system of checks and balances.

Late in the day, Mr. Trump took to Twitter to pre-emptively blame the judge and the judiciary for what the president suggested would be a future terrorist attack.

“Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril,” Mr. Trump wrote, a day after referring to the “so-called judge” in the case. “If something happens blame him and court system.”

Even before the latest post, Republicans joined Democrats in chiding him. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said it was “best not to single out judges.”

“We all get disappointed from time to time,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I think it is best to avoid criticizing judges individually.”

The White House offered no evidence for Mr. Trump’s suggestion that potential terrorists would now pour over the border because of the judge’s order. Since Sept. 11, 2001, no American has been killed in a terrorist attack on American soil by anyone who immigrated from any of the seven countries named in Mr. Trump’s order.

More here.

Mike Pence flip-flops on immigration

Via The Washington Post:

Vice President Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis stood directly behind their boss Friday, one man on each side, as President Trump announced an order that will ban half the world’s Shiite Muslims from entering the country for months.

“I’m establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States,” Trump said from his podium at the Pentagon. “We don’t want ’em here.”

Pence nodded along to the words. It was just over a year earlier when he had called Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States “offensive and unconstitutional.” That was before Trump picked him as his running mate and won the election.

Trump sat down after his speech, signed the executive order and handed it to Mattis — a retired general who six months earlier had said the mere suggestion of a ban on Muslims caused “great damage” to world order.

Now, Mattis was defense secretary. He took the order and grinned while Pence started clapping.

Like other Republicans, the two men’s condemnations of Trump’s words had evaporated as he drew closer to power — and as his original call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” morphed into a nearly 3,000-word order that does not mention Islam but temporarily bar visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries.

More here.

Can Trumpism survive a Trump Administration?

Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times:

Even before he won the presidency, Donald J. Trump had a strong claim to being the most ideologically disruptive presidential nominee of modern times. From the Bush family to Paul Ryan, the Iraq war to entitlement reform, Trump arrayed himself against the personalities and policies of the Republican Party, and his campaign took a wrecking ball to many of his adopted party’s orthodoxies, proposing a vision of right-wing politics far more mercantilist, nationalist and statist than anything we’ve seen from the post-Reagan, post-Goldwater G.O.P.

His primary campaign proved that this vision is popular with Republican voters, and his shocking general election win suggests that Trumpism might be more politically potent than the conservatism it overthrew. But his revolution was so sudden and sweeping that it raced ahead of itself, capturing the White House without having any of the plans and personnel and foot soldiers that actually operationalizing Trumpism would require.

Every administration tends to have ideological divisions, to rely on an old guard of party people (moderate Republicans in the Reagan era, Clintonites in the Obama presidency) alongside its newcomers, innovators and ideological insurgents. But in this case, apart from the infamous-but-still-marginal alt-right and the small clutch of conservative intellectuals for Trump (most of whom don’t agree on what being “for Trump” means), there is really no Trumpist new guard at all, at least among the people qualified to staff a presidential administration — no roster of elected officials who rose to power promising to Make America Great Again, no list of policy thinkers who have spent the last decade dreaming of tariffs and mapping out Keynesian infrastructure projects and planning for a détente with Moscow.

Instead, Trump campaigned surrounded by politicians, operatives and surrogates whose only real commonality was opportunism. Back when he seemed likely to lose the election handily, this was a reason to wonder about his movement’s staying power — would Newt Gingrich, Ben Carson and Sean Hannity really remain European-style populist nationalists once their patron was defeated?

But now that he’s won, it raises a different question: Can Trumpism survive a Trump administration?

* * *

Perhaps this means there will be a persistent division between rhetoric and policy, in which Trump continues to publicly sell himself as a new sort of nationalist — and his populist allies try to go mainstream and win converts and become the ideological cadres that Trumpism now lacks — even as the gears of government grind in the grooves that Mike Pence and Ryan and the conservative movement prefer.

But more likely it means that we should expect more of what we saw throughout Trump’s presidential campaign — that between a populism unready for power and an establishment with the technical qualifications to govern but no mandate for doing so, the default state for the Trump administration tomorrow and two years hence will be chaos and ruthless civil war.

More here.

Trump’s transition team is slowed to near halt

Via The New York Times:

President-elect Donald J. Trump’s transition operation plunged into disarray on Tuesday with the abrupt resignation of Mike Rogers, who had handled national security matters, the second shake-up in a week on a team that has not yet begun to execute the daunting task of taking over the government.

In a statement on Tuesday, Mr. Rogers, a former congressman from Michigan who led the House Intelligence Committee, said he that was “proud of the team that we assembled at Trump for America to produce meaningful policy, personnel and agency action guidance on the complex national security challenges facing our great country,” and that he was “pleased to hand off our work” to a new transition team led by Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

Mr. Pence took the helm of the effort on Friday after Mr. Trump unceremoniously removed Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who had been preparing with Obama administration officials for months to put the complex transition process into motion. Now the effort is frozen, senior White House officials say, because Mr. Pence has yet to sign legally required paperwork to allow his team to begin collaborating with President Obama’s aides on the handover.

* * *

Still, the slow and uncertain start to what is normally a rapid and meticulously planned transfer of power could have profound implications for Mr. Trump’s nascent administration, challenging the efforts of the president-elect to gain control of the federal bureaucracy and begin building a staff fully briefed on what he will face in the Oval Office on Day 1.

The chaos caught the attention of some senior Republicans who criticized Mr. Trump during his campaign but said after he won that they would not necessarily rule out joining his administration or advising him.

Former Representative Mike Rogers, who had been advising the new administration team on national security issues, has resigned from the transition team. 

Eliot A. Cohen, a former State Department official, said on Twitter that after having spoken to Mr. Trump’s team, he had “changed my recommendation: stay away. They’re angry, arrogant, screaming ‘you LOST!’ Will be ugly.”

Mr. Obama has repeatedly said that his priority is to ensure a smooth and professional transition, a process for which his team and aides to Mr. Trump, as well Hillary Clinton’s staff members, had been quietly preparing for several months. Mr. Christie, who until Friday served as Mr. Trump’s transition chief, signed a memorandum of understanding on Election Day to put the process into motion as soon as the outcome was determined.

But in response to a series of questions about whether the Obama administration had begun to brief Mr. Trump’s team, White House officials said late Monday that the president-elect’s decision to abruptly replace Mr. Christie on Friday with Mr. Pence had, for the time being, frozen the process.

Given the potential likelihood of arguments and switched positions in the Trump team, it will be a miracle if the process can be ably handled. It might be the beginning of serious problems for the Trump Administration.

Michael Gerson on Donald Trump

Michael Gerson, writing in the Washington Post, calls out the failures of the GOP:

In the interest of fairness, I wish to raise an issue on which Donald Trump has been consistently and resoundingly right: The Republican Party is utterly pathetic.

During a decade of commentary, and in a career of government service before that, I have often argued that the GOP is better than its liberal stereotypes. It is a case I can no longer make, at least when it comes to presidential politics.

The Trump ascendancy is the triumph of anti-reason — of birtherism, of vaccine denialism, of suggestions that Justice Antonin Scalia was smothered with a pillow and that Hillary Clinton may have been involved in the death of Vince Foster. It is the triumph of nativism — of a political appeal based on hatred against migrants and Muslims. It is the triumph of white nationalism, which has moved inward from the fringes of Republican politics. It is the triumph of misogyny, demonstrated with words that require a disinfectant shower after hearing. It is the triumph of authoritarian impulses. Since the Constitution is “broken,” argued Maine Gov. Paul LePage, “we need a Donald Trump to show some authoritarian power in our country.”

Trump has made the party a laughingstock among the young, a toxic brand among minorities, an offense to many women, and a source of worry among U.S. allies and alarm among national security professionals. And this was before Trump pronounced himself unshackled from the style-cramping expectations of his establishment Republican captors. The main use of his newfound freedom has been to attack GOP leaders. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) has authored “bad budgets.” In what way? They were “very, very bad budgets,” Trump elucidated. He “wouldn’t want to be in a foxhole” with Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) — which, presumably, was the point of Trump’s five Vietnam deferments.

Steve Bannon, the chief executive of Trump’s campaign, once said, “What we need to do is bitch-slap the Republican Party.” The lift, it might be said, of a driving dream. And how has the object of this contempt responded? It is supine. It is docile. It licks the hand that beats it.

Trump can hardly maintain, for even five minutes, the pose of apology for predatory and abusive language against women beforedismissing it as “salty language” or the equivalent of a “sneeze.” Yet Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus calls his apology “heartfelt,” a description he must know to be false. And running mate Mike Pence goes further, urging evangelical Christians to accept Trump’s “apology” because they are required to believe in “grace and forgiveness.” Pence is seeking theological cover for cruelty and political cynicism. This is nigh to blasphemy.

Much more here.

Donald Trump is the GOP’s chemotherapy

George Will, writing in the Washington Post:

What did Donald Trump have left to lose Sunday night? His dignity? Please. His campaign’s theme? His Cleveland convention was a mini-Nuremberg rally for Republicans whose three-word recipe for making America great again was the shriek “Lock her up!” This presaged his banana-republican vow to imprison his opponent.

The St. Louis festival of snarls was preceded by the release of a tape that merely provided redundant evidence of what Trump is like when he is being his boisterous self. Nevertheless, the tape sent various Republicans, who until then had discovered nothing to disqualify Trump from the presidency, into paroxysms of theatrical, tactical and synthetic dismay.

Again, the tape revealed nothing about this arrested-development adolescent that today’s righteously recoiling Republicans either did not already know or had no excuse for not knowing. Before the tape reminded the pathologically forgetful of Trump’s feral appetites and deranged sense of entitlement, the staid Economist magazine, holding the subject of Trump at arm’s length like a soiled sock, reminded readers of this: “When Mr. Trump divorced the first of his three wives, Ivana, he let the New York tabloids know that one reason for the separation was that her breast implants felt all wrong.”

His sexual loutishness is a sufficient reason for defeating him, but it is far down a long list of sufficient reasons. But if it — rather than, say, his enthusiasm for torture even “if it doesn’t work,” or his ignorance of the nuclear triad — is required to prompt some Republicans to have second thoughts about him, so be it.

For example, Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolinian seeking a third term, represents a kind of Republican judiciousness regarding Trump. Having heard the tape and seen Trump’s “apology” (Trump said, essentially: My naughty locker-room banter is better than Bill Clinton’s behavior), Burr solemnly said: “I am going to watch his level of contrition over the next few days to determine my level of support.” North Carolinians will watch with bated breath as Burr, measuring with a moral micrometer, carefully calibrates how to adjust his support to Trump’s unfolding repentance. Burr, who is chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has not received this nugget of intelligence: Contrition is not in Trump’s repertoire. Why should it be? His appetites, like his factoids, are self-legitimizing.

Trump is a marvelously efficient acid bath, stripping away his supporters’ surfaces, exposing their skeletal essences. Consider Mike Pence, a favorite of what Republicans devoutly praise as America’s “faith community.” Some of its representatives, their crucifixes glittering in the television lights, are still earnestly explaining the urgency of giving to Trump, who agreed that his daughter is “a piece of ass,” the task of improving America’s coarsened culture.

Because Pence looks relatively presidential when standing next to Trump — talk about defining adequacy down — some Republicans want Trump to slink away, allowing Pence to float to the top of the ticket and represent Republicanism resurrected. This idea ignores a pertinent point: Pence is standing next to Trump.

More here.

The Washington Post Editorial Board slams Trump

The Washington Post has been extremely effective in covering Donald Trump’s numerous outrages. Here is an excerpt from the Washington Post Editorial Board from yesterday:

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan correctly described Donald Trump’s 2005 taped sexually predatory conversation as “sickening,” but anyone interested in the health of the Republican Party should focus on the next part of Mr. Ryan’s statement. The sentence that counts — the statement that reveals the amoral, abject corruption at the heart of the Republican Party in this sad season — is this: “I hope Mr. Trump treats this situation with the seriousness it deserves and works to demonstrate to the country that he has greater respect for women than this clip suggests.”

Thus did the Republican Party once again initiate the same pathetic little dance it has performed with its party’s nominee from the beginning. Claim the moral high ground; insist on improvement, as if improvement were a relevant concept in this situation; and then, when nothing improves, pronounce yourself satisfied nonetheless. It’s true that this time some Republicans are jumping ship, including (finally) former presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Sen. John Thune (S.D.), part of the GOP Senate leadership. But vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Republican Chairman Reince Priebus and most other office-holders continue to join Mr. Ryan in pretending that Mr. Trump is not what we all know him to be. Are they fooling themselves, or just fearful of offending the Trump supporters whose votes they need in other races? Either way, the effect is the same.

Let’s ponder Mr. Ryan’s advice that Mr. Trump demonstrate a “greater respect for women than this clip suggests.” Certainly, that should not be difficult. What the clip shows is disgusting: an insecure braggart who, at the age of nearly 60, needs to boast of how he uses his celebrity to prey on women, and all the better if he can break his vows of marriage or theirs. Mr. Trump could be a caveman in one of those “Mad Men”-era cartoons dragging a woman back to his lair by her hair and still demonstrate a “greater respect for women than this clip suggests.” The idea that some pronouncement, any pronouncement, from Mr. Trump now could or should reassure voters is ludicrous.

Much, much more here.

How could Republicans upend Trump?

The Washington Post explains two paths to removing Donald Trump as the party’s nominee. But the paper acknowledges that neither may work.

Option 1: Trump is persuaded to drop out. The Republican National Committee nominates a new candidate and petitions states to change their ballots.

In this situation, RNC members would convene and select a new nominee, with each state getting the same number of votes that they had at the national convention. While there is a growing call for Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, to move to the top of the ticket, he would still have to be formally nominated before he got the slot.

“It’s not like Pence automatically becomes the nominee,” said Nathaniel Persily, a constitutional law expert at Stanford Law School. “Remember poor old Ted Cruz?”

Then comes the really hard part. Many states have already printed their ballots, and 400,000 early and absentee votes have already been cast, according to a tally by the United States Elections Project. The party would have to persuade states to put the new nominee on the ballot by appealing to secretaries of state and seeking emergency injunctions through the courts — no easy lift at this late date.

“It seems very unlikely in most places that a court would order this, not only because ballots have been printed, but ballots have gone out to overseas and military voters,” said Rick Hasen, a law professor and election law expert at the University of California at Irvine. “While I think courts often will bend deadlines a little before there has actually been voting, now we’re in a situation where that moment has passed.”

Not to mention that there would be fierce legal pushback from Democrats.

“You will end up with lawyers on the other side saying, ‘This is ridiculous, you can’t allow them to game the system at this late stage,’” Persily said.

* * *

Option 2: Trump refuses to step down, and there is an unprecedented national effort to persuade state electors to vote for an alternative candidate.

The 538 members of the electoral college are scheduled to gather on Dec. 19 to cast their ballots for president and vice president. That’s usually just a formality. But consider this scenario, posed by Edward Foley, director of election law at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law: What if Republicans abandon Trump and spend the next several weeks urging electors to vote for Pence or another alternative? It raises intriguing possibilities. While many electors are bound by state law to vote for the candidate selected by the popular vote on Nov. 8, there is precedent for “faithless” electors who have bucked that requirement. And it is unclear what legal remedies there would be to force them to comply, said Foley, author of “Ballot Battles: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States.”

“The Supreme Court has never settled the question of what happens if the electors vote on Dec. 19 contrary to what the state vote assumes they will,” he said. “What really matters is what gets sent to Congress on Jan. 6.”

And that’s why, absent a clear victory by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, it could all come down to who controls Congress. If no candidate is able to reach the 270 majority in the electoral college on Dec. 19, the decision on the next president would be decided by the House of Representatives in January. If a Trump alternative somehow secured 270 votes and there was a dispute over whether that vote was valid, both chambers of Congress would have to decide whether to accept the electoral vote.

Veteran lawyers say it is highly improbable that the 2016 campaign will end up down this path.

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Political quotes of the day

Other than destroying every instrument of democracy in his own country, having opposition people killed, dismembering neighbors through military force and being the benefactor of the butcher of Damascus, [Putin] is a good guy.

This calculation by Trump unnerves me to my core.

— Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.)

I don’t think the [Trump’s] qualified to be president of the United States, and every time he speaks, that opinion is confirmed. There is this process that seems to take place over the course of the election season where somehow behavior that in normal times we consider completely unacceptable and outrageous becomes normalized, and people think we ought to be grading on a curve.

President Barack Obama

I think it’s inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country. And that’s going to change the day that Donald Trump becomes president of the United States of America.

— Governor Mike Pence

Judging by the amount of time NBC’s Matt Lauer spent pressing Hillary Clinton on her emails during Wednesday’s national security presidential forum, one would think that her homebrew server was one of the most important issues facing the country this election. It is not. There are a thousand other substantive issues — from China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea to National Security Agency intelligence-gathering to military spending — that would have revealed more about what the candidates know and how they would govern. Instead, these did not even get mentioned in the first of 5½ precious prime-time hours the two candidates will share before Election Day, while emails took up a third of Ms. Clinton’s time.

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In fact, Ms. Clinton’s emails have endured much more scrutiny than an ordinary person’s would have, and the criminal case against her was so thin that charging her would have been to treat her very differently. Ironically, even as the email issue consumed so much precious airtime, several pieces of news reported Wednesday should have taken some steam out of the story. First is a memo FBI Director James B. Comey sent to his staff explaining that the decision not to recommend charging Ms. Clinton was “not a cliff-hanger” and that people “chest-beating” and second-guessing the FBI do not know what they are talking about. Anyone who claims that Ms. Clinton should be in prison accuses, without evidence, the FBI of corruption or flagrant incompetence.

Second is the emergence of an email exchange between Ms. Clinton and former secretary of state Colin Powell in which he explained that he used a private computer and bypassed State Department servers while he ran the agency, even when communicating with foreign leaders and top officials. Mr. Powell attempted last month to distance himself from Ms. Clinton’s practices, which is one of the many factors that made the email story look worse. Now, it seems, Mr. Powell engaged in similar behavior.

Last is a finding that 30 Benghazi-related emails that were recovered during the FBI email investigation and recently attracted big headlines had nothing significant in them. Only one, in fact, was previously undisclosed, and it contained nothing but a compliment from a diplomat. But the damage of the “30 deleted Benghazi emails” story has already been done.

Imagine how history would judge today’s Americans if, looking back at this election, the record showed that voters empowered a dangerous man because of . . . a minor email scandal. There is no equivalence between Ms. Clinton’s wrongs and Mr. Trump’s manifest unfitness for office.

Washington Post Editorial Board