Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Shutdown. A Debacle for Trump Based on Wrong Assumptions.

As we point out in The Buzz on January 17, “Is the Wall and Shutdown a Winner for Trump and Republicans?”:

And indeed, missed paychecks among military, such as the Coast Guard; law enforcement, such as TSA, FBI and others; and finally the looming shutdown of the air traffic control system, convinced a very stubborn president that he had a losing strategy.

Misjudging the ease by which he could sustain a shutdown in terms of lost popularity and allies, Trump also misjudged the impact of the midterm elections and the determination of the new Democratic House of Representatives to stop him. He was convinced (and still apparently is) that Democratic House members were going to break from their leaders in the face of constituent hardship and demand a counteroffer with wall funding. In fact, during the last days, it was vulnerable or independent Republicans who broke for opening the government.

While Trump may denigrate polls (and yet still tout those that make him look good – far and few between), it was a wave of polls after mid-January that convinced all of rational, or at least calculating D.C. denizen, that Trump’s third assumption was also wrong. His Oval Office address, visits to Texas borders and endless statements of the threat to national security failed to move public opinion. The wall was still unpopular with the majority of the public. He was being blamed for the shutdown, which was far more unpopular than any crisis on the border, and getting worse every day.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Frank Newport, the Dean of National Pollsters, Steps Back from Gallup After 28 Years at the Helm

Frank Newport, who has guided the Gallup poll since 1990, has transitioned to senior scientist, which means he will be active with analyses and survey methods, but will pull back from the management and lead published analyses.
Frank Newport

The Gallup poll was founded by George Gallup and made famous starting in 1936 previewing presidential elections (Roosevelt vs. Landon) with two colleagues, Elmo Roper and Archibald Crossley. All three founders had talent in scientific methods, politics and media. They were especially good at putting polls in the news. Newport shared their talents with one other – a profound respect for the ability of public opinion research and polling to further democratic values.

Gallup was especially conscious of the usefulness of polls to moderate the influence of special interests and to guide political leaders in between periodic elections. Newport, in his publications and broadcast materials for 28 years, was a source of some of the most insightful analyses available

In a report published in June this year titled, “Americans Oppose Border Walls, Favor Dealing With DACA,” Newport highlighted that:
  • 41% favor expanding construction of walls along U.S.-Mexico border
  • 83% approve of allowing DACA immigrants to become citizens
  • Republicans, Democrats agree on DACA, disagree on walls
He consistently made a balanced and intelligent contribution to our consideration of important public policy.

I have used Gallup polls and his viewpoints in my own analyses. We have been on panels together and his work has been important material in my graduate class on public opinion research at the University of Denver.

Thank you, Frank. Have a great next career.

See Politico: Gallup retreats from political polling again under new leadership

Mueller is Political, Not Legal Challenge for Trump

The political environment of the Trump administration will change dramatically in 2019.
  • The new Congress has started and Nancy Pelosi is the Speaker. The Democratic majority was elected to restrain President Trump. They will have powers of appropriation, authorization, oversight and investigation. President Trump produced much of the political news during his first two years. But Congress and especially the House will now become a source of news and reaction. Mitch McConnell will have several more Trump-friendly members and two new Democrats from Arizona and Nevada. His larger majority should help on appointments, but as members face re-election in 2020, cracks already visible will widen (Cory Gardner and Susan Collins).
  • The Trump stock market (his claim) has given back half its gains since his election and appears to have a very volatile 2019 ahead of it. Interest rate increases and tariffs are major challenges.
  • Most importantly, the Mueller investigation is likely to end in 2019 with some additional indictments, pleas, sentencings and a report. There will also be a struggle over management of the Justice Department with a looming confirmation fight.
The President believes the Mueller investigation is not a legal problem, but a political issue to manage with his usual public relations tools. Although he could be indicted by the House, the Senate is unlikely to convict and the Justice Department will not charge him with a crime. Hence, his goal is to simply discredit it. However, after more than a year of political effort, he has not been successful in muffling, sidelining or damaging the credibility of the investigation. In fact, some polls indicate he’s losing ground in his effort to discredit Mueller personally, his staff and the investigation in general.

Trump’s main problem is that his believability has declined dramatically with all but his most committed supporters. His reputation for lying is now well-established and it makes his witch hunt claims against the investigation ring false with six out of 10 Americans. When asked in a USA Today/Suffolk University poll, 59 percent of the public offered “little or no trust” for Trump vs. 53 percent who said a “lot or some trust” for Mueller.

The major national polls asked Mueller investigation questions in their year-end polls and Trump did poorly: A majority approve of the investigation (56%, FOX News), a majority (58%, AP/NORC) believe he tried to obstruct the investigation.
The host of year-end polls also show the public believes Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 election, 62 percent do not believe Trump has been honest and truthful with the investigation, and only 34 percent believe it should end.
  • Trump’s statement that Russia did not try to interfere with the U.S. presidential election – Believe it – 15%, Republican 27%, Democrat 5% (Washington Post Fact Checker poll, N1025, Nov. 29-Dec. 10, 2018)
  • Trump’s been honest and truthful in investigation – 62% no. Mueller investigation should end – 34% end, 45% continue (Wall Street Journal/NBC News, N900, Dec. 9-12, 2018)

Shutdown and the Wall. Year Not Ending Well for Trump.

At the December 11 famous televised meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, President Trump, in one of his exuberant moments, said that the “wall” was worth a government shutdown and he will be “proud to shut down the government…I will take the mantle.” Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell worked around Trump’s shutdown impulse on December 19 with a Senate voice vote. But, Trump under pressure from his base, demanded the House pass a new resolution with $5 billion for the wall. On December 20, they did, partially to prove they could after several failed efforts. Pelosi had claimed they didn’t have the votes. She even inspires Republicans to extra efforts.

House rebels (Freedom Caucus, such as Jim Jordon and Mark Meadows) and his far-right wing supporters – Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Breitbart and Drudge – began criticizing Trump and Republicans and advocating a veto and holiday shutdown. They completely captured Trump and the White House and there may well be a shutdown into the new year.

The reality of the politics is that the wall is good for a segment of Trump’s base, but not much else and has considerable downsides. Most Republican leadership believe the wall is a presidential promise devoid of much real benefit for U.S.-Mexico border security and doesn’t have the support of the public. And, under no condition is an extra $3.4 billion for a construction project worth shutting down the U.S. government over the holidays. But, of course, arguing for the hardliners is that next year the House, under Democratic control, will be even less hospital to President Trump’s wall. The latest polls show:

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Mattis Resigns With Blast at Trump’s Leadership

In my blog on November 3, “We Are Going to Miss Mattis,” I highlighted Mattis’ advocacy of the rule of law in the Khashoggi murder and the importance of alliances based on trust and honesty. But, the post also cited his likely imminent departure. His influence was diminished and the Commander in Chief had disparaged him in an interview (Win or Lose, Trump is Changing the Team, Nov. 1, 2018).

He is not alone in his departure. A host of top officials are out as 2019 begins. Attorney General Jeff Sessions pushed out, John Kelly eased out and Nikki Haley resigns on good terms. It’s assumed Kirstjen Nielsen will be eased out soon.

Mattis “retired” according to President Trump. In fact, his resignation letter made clear he quit over major policy disagreements with the President and his national security team. The letter never praised nor thanked Trump, but highlighted specific criticism for Trump’s alliance policy, especially with NATO, and his approach toward “malign actors and strategic competitors.”

The key paragraph:
Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.

Mattis, as opposed to most senior officials departing the Trump administration, was ahead of the President’s tweet and framed the issue to his specification. Some language follows:

One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies. 

…we must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances. NATO's 29 democracies demonstrated that strength in their commitment to fighting alongside us following the 9-11 attack on America. The Defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations is further proof.

China and Russia:
Similarly, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model - gaining veto authority over other nations' economic, diplomatic, and security decisions - to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies. That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense.

Respect for Allies, Clear-eyed About Adversaries:
My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.

Read full resignation letter here

Senate Says “No” to Trump on Khashoggi and Yemen War

President Trump and his top representatives, Secretary of State Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mattis, were told as clearly as possible that their Middle East policy related to Saudi Arabia cannot be guided by Trump’s view of foreign policy stripped of America’s historic commitment to human rights and rule of law.

The Senate also, reflecting the midterm vote and repeated polls, began to assert a more aggressive oversite of the administration’s foreign policy. They passed a resolution condemning Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi (unanimous support) and a second resolution ending U.S. military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen (passed 56 to 41). (See The Buzz: John Brennan and CIA Director Gina Haspel, 12-7-18)

Although the sense of the foreign policy establishment is that the administration is correct about the importance of the Saudi-U.S. relationship, there is a considerable disagreement whether it should be the centerpiece of a Middle East strategy and if MBS is likely to be a reliable partner. But, there is near universal disapproval of Trump’s articulation of a crass “America First” imperative and his distortion of the intelligence community’s judgement of the facts of the murder and MBS’s involvement.

The latest polls indicate that the Khashoggi affair may reflect as big a defeat for Trump’s foreign policy credibility as the Helsinki Summit with President Putin last summer.

Polling results on the Khashoggi murder:

  • 52% - disapprove the way Trump is handling the U.S. Saudi relationship (CNN poll, N1015, Dec. 6-9, 2018)
  • 60% - don’t believe the Saudi government’s story about Khashoggi’s death (YouGov, Oct. 24, 2018)
  • 66% - U.S. response hasn’t been tough enough on Saudi Arabia’s role (CNN poll, N1015, Dec. 6-9, 2018)
  • 77% - believe there should be a consequence for Saudi Arabia’s actions (Quinnipiac, N1148, Dec. 12-17, 2018)

John Brennan and CIA Director Gina Haspel

CIA Director Gina Haspel was on her way to brief the U.S. Senate on the Khashoggi murder when she and former CIA Director John Brennan walked past George H.W. Bush’s casket and were pictured together. Hopefully, the President either missed the picture or doesn’t assume Brennan was part of any briefing. Trump is not a Brennan person.

John Brennan and Gina Haspel

Haspel may be in trouble, even without the Brennan walk-by. She was complimented by senators from both parties on her candid assessment of the Khashoggi murder and the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s responsibility. President Trump simply wants the story to go away. He’s decided. The alliance is transactional and Iran arms sales, jobs and oil supersede intelligence service assessments or the value of U.S. moral leadership. Trump summed up the intelligence on MBS as “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t” know about the event.

The senators that heard Haspel’s assessment mostly disagreed. Lindsey Graham, always pungent, said there was “zero chance” the Crown Prince wasn’t’ involved in Khashoggi’s death. “There’s not a smoking gun. There’s a smoking saw,” a reference to the discredited earlier presentation by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Mattis said there was “no smoking gun.” They both mostly simply repeated the President’s position that the relationship with Saudi Arabia was too important to disrupt over the Khashoggi affair.

The administration’s problem is that a large bipartisan group of senators don’t agree and are insisting on something happening to express the U.S. government’s outrage.

Bob Corker R
Lindsey Graham R
Rand Paul R
Richard Shelby R
Richard Durbin D
Robert Menendez D
Christopher Murphy D
Chuck Schumer D

The main target of recompense is American support for the Yemen War. While the Senate may only have resolutions, which are mostly gestures, the House Armed Services Committee in January, after the Democrats take over, is likely to be very unhospitable to funding the war.