1. The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming!
The 1966 Cold War slapstick parody is back – not off the coast of Maine, but on social media platforms and computer screens near you. There are two important takeaways from the criminal complaint of a female Russian operative by the Justice Department on Friday.
First, Russian efforts to disrupt and undermine American political processes did not end in 2016; they are continuing today, with tens of millions of dollars in backing. Second, the cyber campaigns are not engineered just to support Trump and Republicans; they are waged across the board, designed amplify divisions among Americans on issues that cut across the spectrum, from gun control to race.
While a little more sophisticated than a Russian Alan Arkin warning good American citizens, “Emergency, emergency, everybody to get from street,” the effect of the new Russian tactics is to get Americans so angry at each other they get off the streets of healthy political discourse in our campaigns, leaving citizens cynical and alienated, and viewing American democracy as a sham.
2. Robert Mueller and the dog that didn’t bark
Clearly, Mueller is channelling his inner Sherlock Holmes by staying so quiet these days – barely a peep. Why? It’s obvious, dear Watson. In 2016, the late stages of the campaign were marred by James Comey’s pronouncements on criminal matters involving Hillary Clinton.
Mueller is under sustained assault from President Trump and his allies; “witch hunt” is a staple of Trump tweets and statements. So in this October period before voting on November 6, Mueller has gone to ground: no indictments, plea deals, indictments from his grand jury or sentencing of those who have pled guilty.
There are signs that Mueller’s work on obstruction of justice and conspiracy with the Russians is nearing a conclusion. Virtually all of those who can provide clear evidence have been interviewed under oath or been before the grand jury; Roger Stone is the only remaining principal whose fate is unresolved –aside of course from the President and whether he will be interviewed under oath.
However that is resolved would appear to conclude the proceedings required to issue a report on the core allegations under investigation, or to bring down indictments on those charges, or both. This suggests that from mid-November to Christmas is now the likeliest window for Mueller to start barking again.
3. Midterms update
The Republicans feel increasingly optimistic about their prospects in holding the Senate. The Democrats need a net gain of 2 seats to take control. While several Democratic incumbents in states Trump carried in ‘16 are doing just fine – Bob Casey in Pennsylvania and Sherrod Brown in Ohio, for example – at least two others, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Claire McCaskill in Missouri (both voted against Kavanaugh) are vulnerable. And Republican Senate seats Democrats hope to flip – Arizona, Nevada and Texas – are not in a victory frame today.
So right now, the Republicans might not only hold the Senate, but gain 1-3 seats. In the House, Democrats feel they have momentum, money, and an urgency driven by women together with nonwhite voters. And the most cited issue by voters is not the economy, but health care.
Over 40 Republicans have retired - Democrats need only 23 of those seats, and have two dozen more in play. With Trump’s approval rating materially under 50 per cent, the underlying trends for the House are favourable for the Democrats. This week will be static, with decisive final moves among likely voters emerging towards the end of next week.
4. This week's cautionary tale
Trump is throwing everything he can into the midterms – which means himself first and foremost. “I am on the ticket” he says – meaning that he wants voters to vote Republican for the House and Senate as if they were voting for him for president.
His campaign schedule is exceptionally intensive; the bully pulpit is in overdrive. Twenty months into his presidency, with Republicans in lock-step with him in Congress, and with his favoured candidates prevailing in primaries, Trump owns the Republican Party, and the party has capitulated to him.
The exceptions to what Trump has wanted at crucial junctures – John McCain voting against the repeal of Obamacare, and Lisa Murkowski voting against Kavanaugh – are few and far between.
History strongly suggests this referendum on Trump will collide with the “Pottery Barn Rule” frequently invoked by Colin Powell. “You break it, you own it.” We know what Trump will claim if the Republicans emerge on Nov 7 with control of Congress retained.
But if they don’t?