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Eyes on 2020

In Phone Call With Putin, Trump Did Not Discuss Russia’s Help on His 2016 Campaign

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WASHINGTON, May 3, 2019 — President Donald Trump on Friday spent over an hour talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin without warning the Moscow strongman against repeating the campaign of assistance Russia mounted to aid the President’s 2016 election effort.

The phone call was first disclosed by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who told reporters that the two leaders spoke for more than 60 minutes Friday morning in order to discuss a number of subjects, including trade, a potential nuclear agreement, North Korea, Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the presence of Russian forces in Venezuela.

But when the Wall Street Journal’s Vivian Salma asked Trump if he’d raised the issue of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election during an Oval Office photo opportunity with Slovak Republic Prime Minister Peter Pelligrini, he became irate and began interrupting the reporter.

“Excuse me. I’m talking. I’m answering this question. You are very rude,” Trump interjected after Salma asked if he’d told Putin not to meddle in the upcoming 2020 election. When other reporters asked again shortly after that, Trump curtly replied that he did not discuss election interference with Putin.

But Trump said that he did speak to Putin about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia’s efforts to aid his campaign, and even took a moment to describe Putin’s reaction and relay his comments to reporters.

“He actually sort of smiled when he said something to the effect that it started off as a mountain and it ended up being a mouse,” Trump said. “But he knew that because he knew there was no collusion whatsoever.”

Although Trump continues to claim that Mueller found “no collusion” between his campaign and any Russians, the special counsel’s 199-page Volume 1 report, which dealt with Russia’s interference in the 2016, does not back up his assertion.

While Mueller was not able to charge any Americans associated with the President or his campaign with conspiring with the Russian government to swing the 2016 election in his favor, he identified a multitude of contacts between Trump associates and various Russian nationals with connections to the Kremlin, including a meeting between Trump campaign bosses and a Russian lawyer offering “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.

The volume also chronicled meetings between Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort and a Russian oligarch, during which Manafort turned over sensitive internal polling data which detailed the Trump campaign’s election strategy.

The special counsel also detailed significant efforts by Russian military hackers to steal data from the Democratic National Committee and the campaign of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, data which was later released by WikiLeaks and heavily promoted by Trump himself.

Although Trump claimed that Putin “smiled” during Friday’s phone call, White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said the two leaders did not speak by videoconference.

“It wasn’t video. [It was] a phone call,” Gidley said. “He [Trump] meant like, he [Putin] laughed, chuckled.”

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Andrew Feinberg covers the White House, Capitol Hill, and anywhere else news happens for BeltwayBreakfast.com and BroadbandBreakfast.com. He has reported on policy and politics in the nation's capital since 2007, and his writing has appeared in publications like The Hill, Politico, Communications Daily, Silicon Angle, and Washington Business Journal. He has also appeared on both daytime and prime radio and television news programs on NPR, Sirius-XM, CNN, MSNBC, ABC (Australia), Al Jazeera, NBC Digital, Voice of America, TV Rain (Russia) and CBS News. Andrew wishes he could say he lives in Washington, DC with his dog, but unfortunately, he lives in a no-dogs building in suburban Maryland.

Eyes on 2020

As Democrats Battle to Challenge Trump, Do Senators Have a Newfound Advantage?

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Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Cory Booker at "March to Save Our Care" Rally at the U.S. Capitol on June 28, 2017/Mobilus In Mobili

WASHINGTON, January 31, 2019 — Nine Senate Democrats have either announced a 2020 presidential campaign, launched an exploratory committee, or are mulling whether to seek a promotion from the Senate to the White House that the American people have granted only three times in one hundred years.

Experts are divided over whether, the age of Donald Trump’s precedent-shattering victory, old norms about presidential expectations still apply.

While senators have won their parties’ nominations regularly, only three — Warren Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama — have gone directly from the Senate to the Oval Office by prevailing in a general election. 

According to presidential historian Allan Lichtman, the reason so many well-credentialed senators have stumbled on the path between the legislative and executive branches is the nature of a senator’s job.

“You have a voting record, which inevitably is going to have elements in it that open you up to attack and criticism, and if your experience is solely limited to the legislature, you don’t have the executive experience that at least traditionally has been considered an important part of the credentials to run for president,” Lichtman said.

But Lichtman, an American University professor known for his presidential election prediction model, cautioned BeltwayBreakfast that in light of the last presidential election, past may no longer be prologue.

“In the era of Trump, all this may be obsolete,” he said, explaining that the 45th president’s brand of “anything goes kind of politics” renders old measures of qualification and disqualification meaningless. “The credentials may make no difference whatsoever anymore.”

As a result, he posits that holding a governorship — once a far more reliable springboard to the presidency — may no longer be the best career path for those who aspire to the highest office in the land. Governors, he said, seem to have a much harder time getting the attention one needs to mount a run.

The ability to get on television excites the base more than pragmatic governing at the state level

“We’re in an era of politics where your ability to get on television, get a national profile and excite the base of your party has become most important,” he said.

Lichtman added that in an era when executive experience “doesn’t seem to matter very much” to voters –   the nationalization of American politics and the ubiquity of cable news gives senators, whose jobs give them the ability to appear on TV to discuss the televised speech or hearing statement they delivered earlier that day, a built-in advantage.

One veteran politico who seconded Lichtman’s suggestion of a new senatorial advantage is Mark McKinnon, who helped shepherd then-Texas Governor George W. Bush to a narrow win in the 2000 election. 

“I think governors are at a greater disadvantage than they used to be,” said McKinnon, who is currently a co-executive producer of Showtime’s “The Circus.”  “It used to be that all politics was local, now all politics are national.”

Senators, McKinnon added, draw a significant advantage from being located in the “media hub” that is the nation’s capital.

“The entire focus of the media universe is in Washington right now,” he said.

As many as nine Senate Democrats could eventually look to prove Lichtman and McKinnon right by showing the Senate to be a viable launchpad for a White House run.

First-term Californian Kamala Harris officially jumped into the race on Martin Luther King, Jr. day, an auspicious date for a campaign that is banking on a young, diverse emerging majority to make 2020 the year demographics finally become destiny for Democrats.

New Yorker Kirsten Gillibrand is counting on her years of advocacy for women to help her finally break through the glass ceiling Hillary Clinton allowed to emerge unbroken from 2016, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren hopes her history of economic justice advocacy will let claim the mantle of the candidate who best represents the hopes of the “99 percent.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is reportedly close to announcing a second bid for the Democratic nomination, and Ohio veteran Sherrod Brown recently announced his own “Dignity of Work” listening tour of early primary states. Also contemplating White House runs are Sens Cory Booker, D-N.J, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. 

Democrats’ control of governorships at lowest level in a century

Though Democrats’ control of governorships has been at the lowest level in a century, there are a few whose names have been floated as potential entrants into a field crowded enough to put the GOP’s 2016 primary slate to shame. 

Washington Governor Jay Inslee, a former member of the House of Representatives, has sought to boost his name recognition with TV appearances over the past month, and the name of Democratic Governors’ Association Steve Bullock, of Montana, has been on the lips of some as a potential contender as well.

Also considering a run is former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who emerged as a possible member of a speculated “unity ticket” with now-former Ohio Governor John Kasich (R).

One of McKinnon’s colleague from the George W. Bush campaign, Republican strategist Michael Turk, agreed the way political parties have nationalized most issues precludes states attempting the kind of policy experimentation that once let governors distinguish themselves in presidential primaries.

“The two political parties have tried to nationalize most issues, so it kind of precludes that sort of policy formation at the state level,” he said. “The more they do that, the less you’re going to have governors rise up because they don’t have the wiggle room to implement different policies at the state level.”

But not everyone is declaring governorships dead as a presidential stepping-stone. Democratic consultant Joe Trippi, who ran then-Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s groundbreaking 2004 primary campaign, predicted that the public’s low opinion of Congress means the trend of senators not being successful at the presidential level is not likely to change.

“The reason Senators don’t do well is the American people don’t have a very high regard for Washington, D.C., and they certainly don’t have one now,” said Trippi, who helped guide now-Senator Doug Jones, D-Ala. to a special election win last year.

He added that governors usually have an easier time of pointing to ways in which they got things done while in office.

“People respond to people who can actually run governments and know how to turn the light switches on,” Trippi said. “Particularly if the current office holder couldn’t find the chair in the Oval Office.”

With a large and crowded field, social media may be more important than television coverage

While Lichtman, McKinnon, and Turk pointed to senators’ easy access to television as a game-changer, Trippi predicted that the sheer size of the Democratic field will preclude most media from covering them all, meaning social media — not television — will be more of a factor for 2020. 

Governors can fight whatever advantage senators can get with constant TV exposure by drawing contrasts and stressing their experience dealing with often-raucous state legislatures.

“It’s not that you have to be at the hearings standing up to Trump’s nominees,” he said. 

“Do not underestimate how people despise anyone who’s gone to Washington and become part of the problem. It’s hard to get that off of you [to longer] have that whiff over the campaign if you don’t have accomplishments.”

One of the masterminds behind President Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory added three more hurdles to the list of those facing the Senate Democrats running for the 2020 nomination.

James Carville predicts failure if Democrats following a ‘base strategy’

In a phone interview with BeltwayBreakfast, veteran strategist James Carville said the difficulties stemming from minority status in the Senate, the Republican president in the White House, and the relatively short time to distinguish themselves from a field already crowded with their own colleagues will hamper any Senate Democrat’s presidential ambitions. 

“How are you in the minority in the Senate going to prove to people you can govern? The truth of that is you probably can’t in the time left,” Carville said, noting the slim odds of either Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., allowing a vote on a Democrat-supported bill or President Trump signing one. 

“I doubt any…Democratic senator is going to come up with a brilliant policy initiative that is going to be signed into law between now and the election.”

Carville, who retired from domestic political consulting after the 1992 election, predicted that the memory of 2016 will factor heavily into how Democrats vote in 2020.

“The trauma that 2016 inflicted on the Democratic party cannot be overestimated,” he said, citing recent polling data that shows Iowa caucus goers prefer a “seasoned candidate” by a double-digit margin.

“To the extent we know what Iowa caucus-goers are thinking, they’re very much in a mood that we need a seasoned candidate who can win the election,” he said. 

Carville suggested the adage that Democrats fall in love while Republicans fall in line behind their chosen candidate may not apply with a Democratic party chastened by 2016 and a Republican party that has largely become a personality cult devoted to President Trump.

Normally Democrats love someone who can excite them, who can make them feel good about themselves and the party,” he said. “But the Republicans are not in any kind of line other than the Trump line, and I’m not sure the Democrats are not in a more pragmatic mood and are ready to cue up as opposed to melt down.”

That pragmatism, Carville predicted, could lead Democrats to look once more to a governor who can connect with a broader swath of the American electorate, rather than following a mirror-image of Trump’s “base strategy” by appealing to urban voters and minorities. 

While he acknowledged that a strategy focused on core Democratic constituencies can win more votes, Carville warned that unless Democrats get better at “math and maps” be recognizing that an “emerging majority strategy” is neither guaranteed to deliver the electoral college to Democrats nor ensure Democratic control of the Senate.

“There’s a certain segment of the Democratic party that would rather lose with that coalition than win with a broad-based appeal,” he said, adding that national Democrats should remember that most of freshman House Democrats who won in 2018 did so with pragmatic campaigns tailored to voters in their districts.

Additionally, Carville stressed that a potential candidate’s coattails are going to be an important variable when calculating who is most likely to win the presidency. He suggested that governors with a record of balancing progressive beliefs with pragmatic governance — particularly someone like Scott Bullock of Montana, who can appeal to middle Americans — could bring that broad-based appeal to the campaign trail.

“As long as 18 percent of the country controls 50 percent of the Senate, there’s a limit to what the emerging progressive majority can do. Without North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Arizona, or Maine, how are you going to field a national campaign?” he asked.

“You can get all the votes you want, but if you don’t control the Senate, you’re SOL in half of one branch of government and SOL in another whole branch of government [the courts].

It’s the senators-versus-governors theories of presidential politics

Carville’s contention that a governor has the best chance of winning the nomination put him odds with Lichtman, the professor who predicted Donald Trump’s shocking victory.

To Lichtman, neither of the two predominant notions of “electability” have any basis in history.

“These are just completely bogus notions that cannot be sustained, and yet people absolutely seem to cling to them,” Lichtman said.

“Nobody knows who’s electable — you never know who’s going to catch the imagination.”

This story has been updated to reflect the fact that  Joe Trippi did not work with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign. We regret any confusion and invite readers to speculate on whether or not former Rep. O’Rourke would now be Senator O’Rourke had Mr. Trippi been in his employ.

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