How Mueller weathered the storm

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On the roster: How Mueller weathered the storm - Washington limps toward shutdown - California’s early primary already remaking Dem race - Obamacare ruling creates headaches for Trump, GOP - Cute and unusual punishment

HOW MUELLER WEATHERED THE STORM 

It was about a year ago this time that the White House and Republicans in Congress dug in for siege warfare with Robert Mueller

Team Trump’s first and most imperative task starting several months beforehand was to discredit the former FBI director and his investigation into Russian interference in the last presidential election.

Just as a similarly situated Bill Clinton successfully did 20 years ago to Kenneth Starr, Trump needed to turn the man investigating him into some kind of power-mad partisan Capt. Philip Queeg in the public imagination. After a somewhat sporadic effort during the summer and fall, 2017 ended with Republicans at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue working constantly and concertedly to undo Mueller.

So how’s that going?

For a while, it seemed like things were going President Trump’s way. Now, we should remember here that we’re not talking about the actual investigation, the contents of which can only be guessed at and endlessly, endlessly speculated upon. We just mean the question of whether Trump was winning the public relations effort to cast himself as the victim and Mueller as corrupt.

And on that count, Trump was having some success. Trump started with about 30 percent of the electorate squarely on his side, many of whom would stay with him even if it were revealed that he and his campaign had helped Russian saboteurs. Mueller, conversely, had broad but shallow support.

As we got into the late summer we saw polls showing the backing for Mueller softening over the course of 2018 and more voters expressing the view that it was time for Mueller to wrap it up. In the WSJ/NBC News poll taken in August, a new low of 41 percent said that the investigation should proceed. 

Trump’s numbers were up overall and it looked like maybe he and the GOP were succeeding in grinding down Mueller. Since the summer, though, there’s been an unmistakable shift in public opinion about Mueller as well as the president’s conduct and honesty.

In the new WSJ poll, the shift is clear. Now, 62 percent believe the president has been lying – that’s up six points since August.  Support for continuing the probe rebounded 4 points. The FBI, which saw a bit of a trough, is back as one of the most esteemed institutions. 

This is part of a larger story for Trump in which his core remains substantially unshaken, but sentiment is hardening against him in the broader electorate.

The degree of overall satisfaction among Trump’s base voters is about the same now as it was for Barack Obama was facing re-election in 2012. The survey found 35 percent of respondents thought Trump has brought about the right kind of change for the country, almost identical to Obama. The difference? Only 32 percent of Americans thought Obama had brought about the wrong changes. Trump is 13 points higher on the wrong track side.

So what’s happening here? 

Part of this is circumstantial. After he zapped Trump’s former lawyer and campaign chairman this summer, Mueller substantially stood down until after the midterm elections. Now that he’s back at the public potion of his work, the issue is back in the news daily.

There’s also the president’s response and the facility of his defenders in Congress. Despite the year-end piñata-ing of celebrity witness James Comey, House Republicans haven’t been able to revive the onetime furor over alleged malfeasance in the Department of Justice. And with his own loyalist in as acting attorney general, it gets harder and harder for Trump to claim that he’s somehow being boxed out.

Plus, Rudy Giuliani is out careening through the media landscape like a driver caroming off of parked cars during an ice storm. Trump’s public-facing lawyer has managed a mistakes-per-minute ratio that is truly astonishing to behold.     

Then there’s Russia itself. There was a time when rank-and-file Republicans seemed to be warming up to Vladamir Putin. No longer. Putin’s actions coupled with revelations like the one this week about how odious his 2016 campaign against the United States was put an end to the onetime Trump dream of some kind of a Russo-American partnership.

The verdict at the end of 2018 is that Trump has so far failed to spread contempt for Mueller in a significant way beyond the same core voters who were with him even before the first “WITCH HUNT!” 

Worse for Republicans and Trump, the deepening consensus that Trump has been lying about some of the facts will make it that much harder for him to rebut the final conclusions of the report when it does come. His decision to mislead voters about the comparatively small matter of his payment of hush money to a sex worker may prove quite costly when it comes time for the closing argument.  

THE RULEBOOK: DUTY OVER DEFECTS 
“Without inquiring into the accuracy of the distinction on which the objection is founded, it will be necessary to a just estimate of its force, first, to ascertain the real character of the government in question; secondly, to inquire how far the convention were authorized to propose such a government; and thirdly, how far the duty they owed to their country could supply any defect of regular authority.” – James Madison, Federalist No. 39

TIME OUT: ‘THE FLOWING ROBES, THE GRACE, BALD... STRIKING’
Writer Louie Lazar went to Tibet to find out about the mountain nation’s love for basketball. Atlantic: “[Coach Bill Johnson] told me, in a dreamy voice, that the people of Tibet were mad for hoops. Johnson described to me the upcoming Norlha Basketball Invitational and Tibetan Hoop Exchange, featuring a tournament that he said would showcase the top teams—some composed of nomads, others of monks—in the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. (Gannan is part of China’s Gansu province and is located in the traditional Tibetan region of Amdo.) Johnson called it a ‘turning point’ for his team—‘our big test.’ …. Johnson’s vision for Norlha basketball is to build a program so well respected across the plateau that the best and most driven players will flock to train in Ritoma and then return to their towns and villages as player-coaches to spread what they have learned. Johnson knows achieving this goal is in large part dependent on Dugya Bum.”

Flag on the play? - Email us at HALFTIMEREPORT@FOXNEWS.COM with your tips, comments or questions.

SCOREBOARD
Trump job performance 
Average approval: 
42 percent
Average disapproval: 53 percent
Net Score: -11 points
Change from one week ago: down 0.2 points 
[Average includes: Gallup: 38% approve - 57% disapprove; NBC/WSJ: 43% approve - 54% disapprove; Fox News: 46% approve - 52% disapprove; CNN: 40% approve - 53% disapprove; NPR/PBS/Marist: 43% approve - 49% disapprove.]

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**we now return you to our regularly scheduled political palaver**

WASHINGTON LIMPS TOWARD SHUTDOWN 
Fox News: “The Trump administration Sunday reaffirmed the president's insistence that he would allow a partial shutdown of the federal government if Congress does not provide $5 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, with senior adviser Stephen Miller calling it a ‘fundamental issue.’ ‘At stake is the question of whether or not the United States remains a sovereign country,’ Miller told CBS News' ‘Face The Nation.’ ‘The Democrat Party has a simple choice. They can either choose to fight for America's working class or to promote illegal immigration. You can't do both.’ When asked if the administration was willing to allow parts of the government to cease operation at midnight Friday if the wall is not funded, Miller answered: ‘If it comes to it, absolutely.’ On NBC News' ‘Meet The Press,’ Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., insisted that President Trump ‘is not going to get the wall in any form.’”

CALIFORNIA’S EARLY PRIMARY ALREADY REMAKING DEM RACE 
WSJ: “When Iowa Democrats hold their February 2020 presidential caucuses, millions of Californians will already have their primary ballots. The nation’s most-populous state has moved its primary to March 3, 2020, so it can have more influence in picking presidential nominees. The move from a June primary in 2016 will press hopefuls to consider a West Coast perspective on issues such as immigration and the environment, empower the state’s growing Latino and Asian populations and drastically increase the amount of money candidates must raise to mount a competitive campaign. California’s calendar change is one of several developments reshaping Democrats’ primary process. Following the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary—two predominately-white electorates that are the traditional vetters of presidential candidates—at least six of the next nine states on the 2020 calendar will take Democrats through a swath of states where black and Hispanic Democrats dominate primary elections, including Texas.”

Liberals eye Beto warily - Axios: “But now activists on the left are questioning [Beto O’Rourke’s] ideology and if he's progressive enough to represent their party in 2020. Why it matters: The left is where the energy is in today's Democratic Party. Nearly half of Democratic voters describe themselves as liberal, up 17 percentage points from a decade ago, according to Pew Research Center. After Bernie Sanders didn't get the nomination in 2016, expect the activist base that organized behind him to be even more demanding of all 2020 candidates. ‘I can’t remember anything from Beto's campaign that seems like a big policy idea,’ said Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats, a progressive political action committee, who also worked with Sanders during the 2016 election.”

Perez throws down with state party bosses over data - Politico: “Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez launched an attack on his own party’s state organizations Saturday with a long and angry email over the future of the party’s most valuable asset — its voter data file. Just days before an important Tuesday meeting in D.C. on the future of the data operation, Perez sharply criticized a new proposal from state party leaders and singled out prominent state officials by name. ‘For some inexplicable reason, this proposal would tear down just about everything about our current data structure, reversing so much of the progress we made over the past decade,’ Perez wrote. The national chairman, describing his own reaction to the state proposal as ‘disappointed’ and ‘dumbfounded,’ accused the president of the Association of State Democratic Committees, Minnesota’s Ken Martin, of undermining the DNC by not keeping other state party officials ‘in the loop,’ prompting withering criticism of Perez from state party leaders.”

Iowa looks like Trump country for 2020 caucuses - Des Moines Register: “President Donald Trump remains popular among Iowa Republican voters, but they want the door politely held open for GOP challengers. A new Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll shows Trump has an 81 percent approval rating among registered Republicans in Iowa. Sixty-seven percent say they would definitely vote to re-elect Trump if the election were held today. Nineteen percent of Republicans say they would consider someone else, and 10 percent say they would definitely vote to elect someone else. Yet almost two-thirds — 63 percent — say Iowa should welcome challengers to Trump at the Republican Party of Iowa's caucuses, scheduled for Feb. 3, 2020. The caucuses are held in schools, libraries, fire stations, church basements and a host of other places in all 99 Iowa counties. Poll respondent Nicole Clark, 31, of Indianola is a special education teacher in suburban Des Moines and a registered Republican. She said she definitely supports Trump’s re-election, but thinks challengers should be welcomed.”

Collins: ‘I see nothing wrong with challengers’ - WaPo: “Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Sunday that she is open to potential Republican primary challengers to President Trump while also declining to endorse the president’s 2020 reelection bid. Collins, who helped defeat Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act through Congress in 2017, argued that primaries help shape policy by allowing “a lot of viewpoints to surface.” Several other Republican senators have endorsed Trump’s 2020 aspirations, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). ‘fcI see nothing wrong with challengers — that is part of our democratic system,’ Collins said on CNN’s ‘State of the Union.’ ‘It’s healthy for our democracy.’”

Alexander won’t seek a fourth term in 2020 - Fox News: “Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander announced Monday he will not run for re-election in 2020, saying it’s time for ‘someone else’ to have the privilege of representing Tennessee in the Senate. ‘I will not be a candidate for re-election to the United States Senate in 2020,’ the 78-year-old Alexander said in a statement. Alexander, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, previously served as governor of Tennessee. He also worked as secretary of the Department of Education under then-President George H.W. Bush. ‘The people of Tennessee have been very generous, electing me to serve more combined years as governor and senator than anyone else from our state,’ he said. ‘I am deeply grateful, but now it is time for someone else to have that privilege.’ He added, ‘I have gotten up every day thinking that I could help make our state and country a little better, and gone to bed most nights thinking that I have. I will continue to serve with that same spirit during the remaining two years of my term.’”

OBAMACARE RULING CREATES HEADACHES FOR TRUMP, GOP
Bloomberg: “An explosive court ruling to wipe out Obamacare has revived the acrimonious health care battle in Washington and tossed a political bomb in President Donald Trump’s lap as he gears up to run for re-election. The case may not be resolved in the courts before 2020, legal experts said, which could make it a defining issue in the race for the White House and Congress. Democrats immediately jumped on the Friday night ruling to warn that health care coverage for millions of Americans was at stake due to the Republican-led lawsuit that sought to void popular parts of Obamacare, including protections for pre-existing conditions and a ban on annual lifetime limits. Also at risk are provisions that affect the wider health insurance market, such as keeping adults on their parents’ policies until age 26.” 

N.C. REPUBLICANS MAY DITCH NOMINEE IN TAINTED RACE
AP: “Legislation quickly passed by North Carolina’s lawmakers this week would prepare a path for Republicans to dump their nominee in a still-undecided U.S. House race marred with ballot fraud allegations. ‘I think (legislators are) worried that Mark Harris might be damaged goods and they want to have the opportunity to have a different Republican nominee,’ said Carter Wrenn, a Republican operative and consultant to former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms and others for more than 40 years. ‘That’s how I read those tea leaves.’ If the state elections board decides ballot irregularities or other problems cast the true outcome into doubt and force a redo, the legislation — if allowed to go into law by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper — would require new primary elections in the 9th Congressional District race, in addition to a new general election. That would allow Republicans another look at Mark Harris, the Republican who led Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in unofficial results. Harris hasn’t been certified the winner, and an investigation is looking into missing absentee ballots in rural Bladen County and whether unsealed ballots illegally handled by collection teams there could have been altered.”

PLAY-BY-PLAY
McMorris Rodgers says no to filling Zinke’s Interior position Roll Call

Boehner to release his memoir in spring 2020 - Politico 

House Dems to take action on gun violence legislation come January - Politico

Pergram: ‘DC quietly preparing for shutdown, lest they disturb the Yellies’ Fox News

AUDIBLE: NEVER TWEET
“He said well, ‘Do you think I oughta tweet?’” – Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, recalled what President Trump said to him during a phone call over a week ago. The call was regarding the criminal justice reform bill that was stuck in the Senate because of Sen. Mitch McConnell. The president tweeted on Dec. 7 and the Senate is scheduled to vote to open debate on the bill Monday night.

BEST OF JOURNALISM 2018 
It’s time again for our annual year-end edition saluting the year’s best journalism, and we need your input. What stories stood out? Which journalists helped you understand the world in a better way? Who did it with integrity and an unflinching commitment to the truth? What about the ones who made you think or laugh? You can read last year’s winners here to get an idea of what we’re looking for. Share your suggestions with us by email at HALFTIMEREPORT@FOXNEWS.COM 

Share your color commentary: Email us at HALFTIMEREPORT@FOXNEWS.COM and please make sure to include your name and hometown.

CUTE AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENT 
Fox News: “A Missouri poacher involved in the illegal killing of ‘several hundred deer’ over three years, taking their heads and leaving their bodies to rot, must watch the Disney classic ‘Bambi’ once a month while he remains behind bars, a judge reportedly ruled. David Berry Jr. was one of three men from a southwest Missouri family convicted in what the state’s Conservation Department called one of its ‘largest conservation cases involving the illegal taking of deer.’ After pleading guilty, Berry Jr. was sentenced to one year in jail in Lawrence County on Dec. 6, according to a news release. The 29-year-old was also sentenced to 120 days in jail in a nearby county for a felony firearms probation violation. As part of his sentence, Berry Jr. ‘is to view the Walt Disney movie Bambi, with the first viewing being on or before Dec. 23, and at least one such viewing each month thereafter’ while he remains in jail, according to court records obtained by the Springfield News-Leader.”

AND NOW, A WORD FROM CHARLES…
“Once something is given — say, health insurance coverage to 20 million Americans — you take it away at your peril. … There’s a reason not one Western democracy with some system of national health care has ever abolished it.” – Charles Krauthammer (1950-2018) writing in the Washington Post on March 16, 2017.

Chris Stirewalt is the politics editor for Fox News. Brianna McClelland contributed to this report. Want FOX News Halftime Report in your inbox every day? Sign up here.