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If there was “no collusion” why did the Trump transition team work so hard to set up a back channel with Russia?

On Wednesday evening, The Washington Post reported that special counsel Robert Mueller is zeroing in on Blackwater founder and all-around bad guy Erik Prince. Mueller is apparently particularly interested in a meeting that Prince had with a Kremlin-connected Russian official in the Seychelles during the Trump transition, in which they reportedly discussed setting up a back channel between Trump and Moscow. That Mueller has uncovered evidence of an attempt to set up this back channel also apparently contradicts testimony Prince gave before Congress regarding what he was doing in the Seychelles.

If true, this would be at least the third known attempt to set up a back channel between Trump and Russia. In December of 2016, Jared Kushner, Michael Flynn, and then–Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak secretly met in Trump Tower, and Kushner later testified before Congress that Kislyak had suggested they set up a back channel. Two weeks later, Kushner and Flynn secretly met with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, and discussed setting up a back channel between Russia and the United States. Zayed’s office then reportedly set up the meeting between Erik Prince and the Russian official in the Seychelles.

What’s not entirely clear is what the back channel would have been for. Zayed and Kushner reportedly discussed efforts to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran, so Russian foreign policy is a leading contender. But these discussions were happening only a few days before Trump was inaugurated. If the topic of conversation really only centered on foreign policy, that surely could have waited a week and a half. The most innocent explanation here isn’t really that innocent: that the Trump transition was so suspicious of the outgoing Obama administration that it wanted to keep its conversations with Russia secret. But given all of the other smoke surrounding Russia and the Trump campaign, there are many less innocent explanations as well.

March 16, 2018

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Can drug dealers really be executed?

The White House’s plan for fighting the opioid epidemic will propose giving the death penalty to “some drug dealers,” Politico reported Thursday. President Donald Trump is an enthusiastic proponent of the idea, and of capital punishment in general. A survey of key House Republicans by the Weekly Standard found that many of them would be receptive to Trump’s proposal, at least in theory.

It’s hard to assess whether Trump’s plan is constitutional without knowing the precise legislative text. In the 2008 case Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court effectively abolished capital punishment for crimes that don’t result in the victim’s death. However, the justices explicitly said the ruling didn’t address whether the death penalty for “crimes against the state,” which they defined as “treason, espionage, terrorism, and drug kingpin activity,” are permissible. Depending on the proposal’s scope, that last category could provide federal prosecutors with legal cover.

What’s easier to assess is the pointlessness of the endeavor. Without a dramatic change in national temperament or constitutional law, American capital punishment appears to be in terminal decline. Death sentences are now handed out mostly in a handful of counties in a handful of states. (Federal death sentences are even sparser, and the government hasn’t executed anyone since 2003.) Most of those sentences are eventually overturned on appeal. A growing share of death-row inmates whose sentences are upheld instead die of natural causes while waiting to be executed.

Trump’s proposal would be constrained by the same trends. The lengthy appeals process alone guarantees that no defendants sentenced under it would be executed during his term, or probably even under his successor. Instead, its greatest impact would be to show the system for what it is: a creaky, glacial enterprise that imposes tremendous costs, moral and otherwise, on American society and delivers virtually nothing in return.

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FEMA is not preparing for “climate change.”

Last year was among the most expensive years in the history of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief program, due to record-breaking hurricanes and wildfires that scientists say were made worse by climate change. But the agency has removed that very term from its strategic plan for the next four years.

It’s long been the unspoken policy of the Trump administration to erase references to climate change from government documents. Vox reported in December that the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Transportation “have all had websites or press releases scrubbed of references to humanity’s role in rising average temperatures.” Now, it appears, this policy applies to the agency in charge of protecting Americans from climate disasters.

FEMA insists it is still preparing for such disasters, and implies that the causes don’t matter. “It is evident that this strategic plan fully incorporates future risks from all hazards regardless of cause,” FEMA Public Affairs Director William Booher said in an email. “Building upon the foundation established by FEMA’s previous two Strategic Plans, this plan commits the agency, and the nation, to taking proactive steps to increasing pre-disaster investments in preparedness and mitigation.”

But preparedness and mitigation are not enough to keep Americans safe as the atmosphere and ocean gradually warm. If government agencies don’t tackle the cause—carbon emissions from fossil fuels—the impacts, in many places, will become too extreme to adapt to. FEMA will bleed money preparing for, and responding to, more hurricanes like Harvey and Maria. And much of the blame will lie with conservatives who are triggered by two little, truthful words.


Trump is systematically removing the guardrails in his cabinet.

Over the past ten days, President Trump’s economic adviser, Gary Cohn, has resigned; his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was fired over Twitter; and his national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, is expected to be moved out of the White House and into a four-star military role. McMaster—whose ouster has been rumored for months—would be gone already, except the White House is concerned about the optics of losing another cabinet member. 

Cohn has been replaced by Larry Kudlow, a cable news pundit; Tillerson by Mike Pompeo, the hawkish CIA director. The leading candidates to replace McMaster are John Bolton, who has publicly pushed the United States to make a preemptive strike against North Korea, and Fox & Friends co-host Pete Hegseth. 

These changes suggest a president who is convinced that he has grown into the job and, more troublingly, has come to resent the numerous guardrails that were erected around him to protect the country (and the world) from his erratic instincts. Trump is remaking his cabinet—filling it with hawks and cable news pundits—into his own image. The triumvirate of “adults in the room”—Tillerson, McMaster, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis—has been neutralized. Trump may finally have the cabinet that he wants: One that won’t stand in his way.  

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Stormy Daniels says she’s been threatened with physical violence.

Daniels’s attorney, Mike Avenatti, told Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski on Friday that his client’s silence has been at least partly purchased with physical threats. Mediaite reports:

And at the end of the interview, Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski asked—almost off-the-cuff—what ended up being a very revealing question about Daniels: “Was she threatened in any way?”

“Yes,” Avenatti replied.

“Was she threatened physical harm?” Brzezinski followed up.

“Yes,” the lawyer replied.

“Oh, wow,” co-host Joe Scarborough reacted, while MSNBC’s John Heilemann asked her to continue the questioning.

Daniels is suing Trump to free herself from a non-disclosure agreement that she says he never signed, and 60 Minutes is slated to run a tell-all interview with Daniels on March 25. Her attorney recently said that six other women have come to him with stories of affairs with Donald Trump. Avenatti’s claims aren’t outlandish: Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, has a history of threatening Trump’s enemies, as NBC News’s Brandy Zadrozny reported on Twitter:

Cohen says he paid Daniels to keep quiet about the affair with his own money.

March 15, 2018

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Why Mueller is subpoenaing the Trump Organization (because of course he is).

The New York Times reported on Thursday that the special counsel in the Russia investigation is seeking records from President Donald Trump’s company. While the subpoena’s scope “was not clear,” the requested documents include “some related to Russia.” I would hope so.

It’s certainly newsworthy that Mueller is taking this step. But it tells us little about the investigation, its progress, or its potential outcome. The first rule of Mueller’s inquiry is that we know less than we think we know about it. His apparently airtight operation—an impressive feat in leaky Washington—is keeping the president, the press, and the American people largely in the dark for now.

Not all of the Russia investigation’s roads run through Trump’s business empire, but many do. Questions remain on the breadth and depth of the president’s business relationships with Russian oligarchs and his three-decade-long interest in Russian real-estate projects. Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, for example, claimed that the Trump Organization was “actively negotiating” with a Russian bank under U.S. sanctions for a potential business venture there. Trump excommunicated Steve Bannon from his inner circle after the former White House chief strategist raised the specter of money-laundering charges to journalist Michael Wolff.

A potential hazard in this information-starved atmosphere is reading too much into certain events and not paying enough attention to others—especially where Mueller is concerned. Here’s a good rule of thumb whenever there’s a new report about the special counsel’s latest move: Based on what we already know about the investigation, would it be more surprising if Mueller wasn’t doing it?

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What do Susan B. Anthony’s List and Nancy Pelosi have in common?

Dan Lipinski, it turns out. The anti-choice Democrat is running for re-election in Illinois’ 3rd District; he faces a primary challenge from a pro-choice woman, Marie Newman. Pelosi endorsed Lipinksi over Newman, and so has Susan B. Anthony’s List, an anti-choice group. McClatchy reports:

SBA List has dispatched 70 canvassers to the Illinois 3rd Congressional District and made a “six-figure investment” in digital ads and a mail campaign ahead of the Tuesday primary, according to an official with the group. Lipinski faces a fierce challenge from Marie Newman, a progressive advocate who has made the incumbent’s opposition to abortion rights central to her campaign.

Lipinski also voted against the Affordable Care Act and opposes marriage equality. Pelosi, who has previously decried “purity tests” applied to Democratic candidates, endorsed Lipinski on March 1. That pits her against EMILY’s List, the Human Rights Campaign, NARAL, SEIU and other members of her own party.

Polling shows Newman in a dead heat with Lipinski—meaning that Pelosi passed up a chance to support a viable, pro-choice candidate over an anti-gay, anti-choice incumbent in trouble.

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Did Scott Pruitt start the rumor that Scott Pruitt might become attorney general?

After firing his secretary of state via Twitter this week, President Donald Trump is reportedly interested in shaking up his Cabinet even further. Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman reported on Wednesday that Trump is considering firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replacing him EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Trump’s frustration with Sessions isn’t a new development, nor is the rumor that Pruitt could be his replacement. In January, Politico reported that Pruitt “told friends and associates that he’s interested in becoming attorney general,” a report the EPA swiftly denied. For nearly a year, speculation has swirled that Pruitt has political ambitions beyond the EPA.

What’s new is the belief that Pruitt himself started the rumor about replacing Sessions. On Thursday, The Atlantic’s Elaina Plott tweeted that she heard as much from “EPA sources.” Axios’ Jonathan Swan followed up, saying the “conventional wisdom” at the White House is that Pruitt is spreading the rumor about himself.

The EPA hasn’t responded to these claims, and will likely deny their validity. But if they’re true, Pruitt’s $43,000 personal soundproof phone booth would make a lot more sense.

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Nothing can convince Donald Trump that the U.S. doesn’t run a trade deficit with Canada.

At a fundraising speech in Missouri on Wednesday night, Trump told donors the bizarre story of his recent meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, during which Trump claimed the U.S. had a trade deficit with Canada even though he wasn’t sure if it did. He then found out that it didn’t, but still tried to claim that it did.

According to audio of the private event obtained by The Washington Post, Trump recounted his meeting with Trudeau this way:

“Trudeau came to see me. He’s a good guy, Justin. He said, ‘No, no, we have no trade deficit with you, we have none. Donald, please,’ ” Trump said. “Nice guy, good-looking guy, comes in — ‘Donald, we have no trade deficit.’ He’s very proud because everybody else, you know, we’re getting killed.

“ ... So, he’s proud. I said, ‘Wrong, Justin, you do.’ I didn’t even know. ... I had no idea. I just said, ‘You’re wrong.’ You know why? Because we’re so stupid. … And I thought they were smart. I said, ‘You’re wrong, Justin.’ He said, ‘Nope, we have no trade deficit.’ I said, ‘Well, in that case, I feel differently,’ I said, ‘but I don’t believe it.’ I sent one of our guys out, his guy, my guy, they went out, I said, ‘Check, because I can’t believe it.’

‘Well, sir, you’re actually right. We have no deficit, but that doesn’t include energy and timber. … And when you do, we lose $17 billion a year.’ It’s incredible.”

The U.S. has a trade surplus with Canada—in 2016, the surplus stood at $12.5 billion. And yet Trump tweeted this in response to the Post’s story:

The president’s remarks come one week after he slapped higher tariffs on steel and aluminum imports with exceptions for Canada and Mexico, prompting fears of an expensive trade war.

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Philippe Reines has a curious theory for how Democrats can win in 2020.

Reines, one of Hillary Clinton’s longest-serving advisers (he played Trump in debate prep), took a break from bickering with Seb Gorka on cable television to offer advice for the Democrats’ 2020 nominee. While it isn’t framed as being backward-looking, Reines’s analysis says more about how he views the 2016 election than where he thinks the party should go.

Reines swats away the usual criticisms of Clinton’s campaign, dismissing its tactical (not campaigning in Wisconsin) and personal (all that Clinton baggage) issues as being immaterial because similar criticisms were thrown at Al Gore and John Kerry.

Reines sees the campaign’s flaws differently. First, there’s his biggest (and best) point, which is that overconfidence helped sink Clinton: Because she thought she was going to win, she didn’t feel like it was necessary to get in the mud with Trump. But then Reines runs into some trouble. He implores the Democrats’ 2020 nominee to punch back every time and to, like Trump, treat the media as a hostile force. Bizarrely, Reines argues that the next Democratic nominee should take money from everyone possible—tobacco companies and Harvey Weinstein are mentioned—without apology.

There’s a sense here that Reines was frustrated with Clinton’s attempt to walk a line between apologizing for taking money from Wall Street and not apologizing for taking money from Wall Street. But it’s not clear how it helps Democrats to run a candidate who tries to go toe-to-toe with Trump when it comes to corruption.

What it does suggest is Reines’s idea of the kind of candidate who can win in 2020: A slightly meaner Hillary Clinton who proudly takes even more money from special interests.

March 14, 2018

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The 2018 midterms are looking great for Democrats: A continuing series.

That was going to be the takeaway regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District. The fact that Democrat Conor Lamb was running a close race in a district that Mitt Romney had won by 17 points and that Donald Trump had won by 20 points was remarkable in and of itself: evidence of a fired-up Democratic base and an apathetic Republican one. But Lamb’s apparent victory was stunning nonetheless, evidence that the Democrats are poised to retake the House of Representatives in the fall.

Much is already being made of the weakness of Republican candidate Rick Saccone, whom President Trump reportedly referred to as a “weak” candidate in the hours before polls opened. There is already a lot of analysis about what Lamb’s success means for the Democratic Party, given that he is a pro-gun moderate who distanced himself from a number of liberal positions, notably on immigration. But to a large extent the particulars of the race are beside the point. The big picture is simple: Democrats have a huge advantage heading into the 2018 midterms and they appear to be poised to pick up seats in deep-red districts.

For the moment, well-educated, suburban voters are driving this trend. In 2016, Trump was able to cobble together a coalition of these voters and working-class ones by pushing an amalgam of conservative and (relatively) liberal positions. But that coalition appears to have already frayed and Republicans haven’t figured out how to field candidates in a world where Trump is president. On Wednesday, Paul Ryan was telling Republicans that the results in Pennsylvania should be a “wake-up call” and that they should aggressively fundraise and run on the tax bill that was passed last year. But Saccone raised more money than Lamb and ran on the tax bill. It didn’t work.