Happy Halloween, pals! How many of you are hastily throwing together a clever political costume for this evening? The possibilities are endless: Zombie Mooch, Fake Melania, Sexy Grand Jury Indictment. (We’re operating on a loose definition of “clever” here.)
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Today, let’s talk about the indictments.
What’s at stake
To hear President Trump tell it, absolutely nothing — he’s spent these heady 24 hours emphasizing that Paul Manafort’s alleged money laundering and unregistered foreign lobbying took place before he, y’know, hired him to run his campaign. That clears things up!
But Trump has said comparatively little about George Papadopoulos, yesterday’s real surprise — the foreign-policy adviser who admitted he’d lied to the FBI about trying to connect the Trump campaign with Russian officials last year. It’s long been established that Trump was Russia’s favored candidate — but the guilty plea is arguably the first real evidence that someone on the Trump campaign was open to their overtures (and that someone knew about the Clinton email hack months before it became public).
The administration has described Papadopoulos as a low-level campaign staffer of little importance, but keen-eyed observers on Twitter were quick to point out that Trump rattled his name off — even called him an “excellent guy” — when the Washington Post asked him to lay out his foreign policy team last March.
The local angle
Shockingly, for once, the only Philadelphian involved in the current brouhaha is Robert Mueller himself. And while Philly is no stranger to audacious acts of political corruption (which is putting it lightly), presidential historian and Princeton professor Julian Zelizer told me yesterday that the only real equivalents to what’s taking place now are the Watergate scandal and Ronald Reagan’s Iran-contra scandal.
Zelizer says Trump’s attempts to shrug off the Manafort charges fall flat. Trump did hire him to run his campaign, after all, at an especially crucial moment: The first wave of emails from the Clinton camp were leaking out, and intelligence agencies were beginning to grow concerned about foreign influence in the election.
And Monday’s indictments mean we’re in it for the long haul, Zelizer says.
“This is a president who doesn’t have any legislation when his first year ends, and has these very low approval ratings — this is a struggling president,” he said. “And [the indictments] ensure that you’re going to have several months if not another year of the investigation. Just the Manafort part of this is going to take a while.”
He says the scope of the allegations against Manafort — “a pretty massive money laundering scheme” — means the feds might try to flip him in exchange for testimony, as they apparently did with Papadopoulos.
Still, it’s instructive to look at past presidential scandals to see what might happen next. Watergate destroyed Nixon, but Reagan emerged from the Iran-contra scandal relatively unscathed. “These are murky issues,” Zelizer said. “It could be a big scandal but in the end not lead to impeachment.” As hard as it is to predict anything in the days ahead, he said, political observers should be watching for who starts to talk, if Congressional Republicans turn on Trump and whether Trump starts hinting about going after Mueller — the president’s tweets will likely define this investigation, as they define his presidency.
What they’re saying
“Russia has been eager to meet Mr. Trump for quite sometime and have been reaching out to me to discuss.” — George Papadopoulos, in a May 2016 email to Trump campaign higher-ups.
“Nothing is gonna derail what we’re doing in Congress because we’re working on solving people’s problems.” — Rep. Paul Ryan, valiantly staying on-message on a day when tax reform is the last thing on anyone’s mind.
“I hope people will start to focus on our Massive Tax Cuts for Business (jobs) and the Middle Class (in addition to Democrat corruption)!” — President Trump on Twitter this morning, unable to resist getting in a dig at the Dems.
In other news…
- The enrollment period to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act — you may have forgotten that it is still the law — starts tomorrow. The enrollment period has been cut in half, there’s less outreach this year about how to sign up, and President Trump’s executive order dismantling some aspects of the law means some premiums are set to skyrocket, pushing people out of the marketplace (though, thanks to a quirk in how the law works, some people in Philly and its suburbs might actually end up paying less — or nothing — on their premiums). Antoinette Kraus of the Pennsylvania Health Access Network told me that health advocacy groups are still working to sign people up. Health navigators have been swamped with calls, she said: “There’s just so much confusion this year, and we’re encouraging folks to start the process sooner rather than later.”
- A federal judge in D.C. has blocked part of Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military.
- Posts made by Russian operatives on Facebook during the campaign reached some 126 million people, the company will testify today at a Congressional hearing — way more than they’ve previously reported.
What I’m reading
- My colleague Trudy Rubin looks at the significance of Monday’s indictments.
- Puerto Ricans fleeing their homes in the wake of Hurricane Maria are making new lives in Philadelphia, my colleague Julia Terruso reports. (My colleague Tricia Nadolny is reporting from San Juan this week.)
- The Washington Post rounds up a group of historians to refute Chief of Staff John Kelly’s claims that the Civil War started because no one could reach a compromise. (“It’s just so sad,” says one, unconsciously echoing Kelly’s boss.)
A non-political palate cleanser
In the spirit of Halloween, here is a New Yorker story that gets real philosophical about Bigfoot, and here’s an Inquirer story about a most Philadelphian tradition: finding skeletons on construction digs.