Trump Tower meeting participant sues for libel

Ike Kaveladze is pictured. | AP Photo

Irakly “Ike” Kaveladze was once the focus of a congressional money-laundering probe after a report was released on Russian money laundering through U.S. financial institutions. | Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

LOS ANGELES — Irakly “Ike” Kaveladze, the so-called “eighth man” at a controversial 2016 meeting between top associates of President Donald Trump and a politically connected Russian lawyer, has sued a California linguist for criticizing him on a cable television show this month.

In his complaint, Kaveladze accuses George Lakoff of libel and slander for comments he made in an MSNBC interview with Chuck Todd, in which Lakoff called Kaveladze “the major person who has been responsible for money laundering from Russia and other post-Soviet countries.”

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In the complaint filed Tuesday in California’s Orange County, where Kaveladze resides, he claims he is “a law-abiding American citizen, father and businessman” who “seeks by this action to dispel the cloud created by Lakoff’s baseless and scurrilous accusations.”

A lawyer for Lakoff, a professor emeritus of cognitive science and linguists at University of California, Berkeley, appeared to welcome the litigation, saying in an email that “we look forward to demonstrating the accuracy of Dr. Lakoff’s statements.”

“This is the United States of America,” said the attorney, Travis LeBlanc. “We will vigorously defend against this baseless lawsuit attacking Dr. Lakoff’s First Amendment rights.”

Lakoff is best known for penning the Democratic campaign Bible “Don’t Think of an Elephant,”

Kaveladze gained notoriety as a participant in a controversial 2016 meeting at Trump Tower attended by Donald Trump Jr., Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as well as Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer who said Trump associates pressed her for negative information bout Hillary Clinton during the meeting.

Kaveladze was once the focus of a congressional money-laundering probe, identified in news accounts in 2000 after the General Accounting Office issued a report on Russian money laundering through U.S. financial institutions. Kaveladze was never charged in relation to the inquiry, and he told The New York Times at the time, “What I see here is another Russian witch hunt in the United States.”

In his lawsuit, Kaveladze said Lakoff’s statements have caused “immense personal and professional damages to Kaveladze.” He also asks for punitive damages, claiming Lakoff’s statements were malicious.

Earlier this week, Lakoff and Gil Duran, a former press secretary for California Gov. Jerry Brown and adviser to billionaire Tom Steyer, announced the launch of a new “message framing and communications strategy firm,” FrameLab.

Poll: Trump approval bounces back at 42 percent

Donald Trump is pictured. | AP Photo

President Donald Trump particularly saw improvement in Americans’ views of his influence on lawmakers. | Jim Watson/AP Photo

President Donald Trump’s approval rating is on the upswing, rising above 40 percent for the first time since September and up 10 points from December in a new poll released Wednesday.

Forty-two percent of Americans approve of Trump’s job performance, according to the latest Monmouth University poll, a sizable uptick from his low mark of 32 percent in Monmouth’s findings last month. Though a majority of Americans still registered disapproval of the president, the figure dropped 50 percent in January from 56 percent in December.

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The findings signal Trump’s best outing in a Monmouth approval poll since the third month of his presidency, when 43 percent registered approval and 46 disapproval last March. The president’s rating had hovered around 40 percent point for months before tumbling toward the end of 2017.

Trump particularly saw improvement in Americans’ views of his influence on lawmakers. Fifty-five percent of voters said the president was at least somewhat successful at carrying out his legislative agenda in Congress, a 13 percent improvement from December before Republican leaders passed their sweeping tax package.

Americans also appeared to soften their stance toward the GOP tax law, with the same proportion — 44 percent — registering approval as those who disapproved. Only 26 percent said they supported the measure in December.

The survey, taken in the days leading up to the president’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night, found that a majority of Americans felt that the state of affairs was at least “somewhat strong,” at 55 percent, while 38 percent said it was either “not too strong” or “not strong at all.”

A majority of those surveyed said they felt that the country was on the “wrong track,” but the results showed an uptick from recent months. Thirty-seven percent said they approve of the country’s direction, up from 24 percent in December.

Though Americans continued to overwhelmingly disapprove of the job performance of the Republican-controlled Congress, support for generic GOP candidates rose.

While Democratic candidates held a 15-point lead in a generic match-up with Republican officials in December, their lead shrunk to a mere 2 points in January.

The Monmouth University Poll surveyed 806 adults age 18 or older from January 28 to 20 via landlines and cell phones. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Democrats Disagree on How to Respond to Trump. Is That a Problem?

Democrats had so much to say about Donald Trump’s State of the Union address last night, they couldn’t say it with one voice. It took four responses—five, if you count Maxine Waters’ cameo on BET scheduled for tonight—to capture the breadth of progressive thought on how to distill the party’s platform and message in advance of the 2018 midterm elections.

Not every response came with the Democratic Party’s stamp of approval. Rep. Joe Kennedy III gave the party’s official English-language response, with the Spanish-language honors going to Virginia state legislator Elizabeth Guzman. The unofficial responses came from the Working Families Party, who enlisted former Maryland Democratic congresswoman and current candidate for Prince George’s County Executive Donna Edwards, and from the technically independent Sen. Bernie Sanders.

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The net effect wasn’t cacophony. Sanders and Edwards didn’t try to steal Kennedy’s spotlight, and waited until he finished (though they directly competed with each other). The four didn’t contradict each other on policy matters.

But in their varying responses, it’s easy to see a lack of strategic consensus on the left in how to deal with the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. The party establishment and the progressive diaspora part ways on how hard to hit a president they all despise, and on what issues to emphasize.

Kennedy did not mention Trump’s name. He catalogued the trials of “the past year.” He referred to the “the administration” and charged “they” with “targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection.” Speaking to a group of vocational school students in working-class Fall River, Massachusetts, and reaching a wide audience on broadcast networks, Kennedy did not want to alienate any swing voters who might have voted for Trump.

Guzman, whose party-sanctioned address aired on Spanish language TV channels, was more pointed and personal: “The president has attacked our families … threatened to deport young patriotic and brave Dreamers [and] failed in his duty to protect our families in Puerto Rico who were affected by hurricane Maria.” This suggests the Democratic Party is fine with a two-pronged message, one that hits Trump hard in certain communities, but offers oblique criticism in others. For all their shared hostility to Trump, the left is still a coalition more than it is an ideologically coherent movement like the small-government conservatism of the pre-Trump era.

Sanders, speaking to his progressive loyalists on his own social media platforms, was laser-focused on Trump. He began by citing “lies that [Trump] told during his campaign and the promises he made to working people which he did not keep.” Perhaps having 2020 a little more on his mind than 2018—Sanders recently summoned his top lieutenants for a meeting about a possible second presidential run—he declared, “The American people do not want a president who is compulsively dishonest, who is a bully, who actively represents the interests of the billionaire class, who is anti-science, and who is trying to divide us up.”

Sanders, for all his desire to push American politics to the left, is not a tactical radical. He stopped short of pushing impeachment and did not emphasize the special counsel investigation. Edwards did not mention impeachment, either, but did accuse Trump of “upending the rule of law, destroying institutions, and engaging in an unprecedented purge of the Department of Justice as Special Counsel Mueller closes in on him.” That shows some disagreement within the progressive community over whether it’s smarter politics to focus on Trump’s scandals or on Trump’s policies. In essence: Russiagate or health care?

Kennedy went comparatively light on criticism of the new tax reform law. He briefly chided “cut[ting] taxes for corporations today if we raise them on families tomorrow,” a reference to how the law allows the individual tax cuts to expire in 2025, while corporate cuts are permanent. But Edwards ripped the “Republican tax scam” as “a heist that benefits some of the richest people who have ever lived [for which] the rest of us will have to pay….” Sanders challenged Trump’s claims of immediate benefits for workers, citing new poll data that “only 2 percent of Americans report receiving a raise or a bonus because of this tax bill” and noting that some companies touting year-end bonuses are also laying off workers.

The difference in approach reflects a hesitancy among some Democrats to attack a tax reform which, if that 2 percent figure rises, may be embraced by voters come November. Most people do get a tax cut this year, even if, as Sanders stressed, “83 percent of the benefits to the top 1 percent.” Democrats with long memories remember the futile attempts to disparage the $300 checks issued by President George W. Bush as paltry in comparison to the windfalls reaped by the wealthy. (Call this the Woody Allen critique: The food is bad … and such small portions!) The complaint didn’t resonate because many voters in 2004 were happy to get anything. The same could be true this year, and that might make some Democrats choose to fight Trump and the GOP on different terrain.

As you might expect, Sanders went much farther on policy prescriptions than the official Democratic responses, hammering his signature proposals including “Medicare for All,” “$15 an hour federal minimum wage,” “free tuition at public colleges and universities” and “universal childcare.” He took aim of Trump’s forthcoming infrastructure plan, arguing it would “sell [our] vital infrastructure to Wall Street.” Sanders proposed spending $1.5 trillion in federal funds on infrastructure over 10 years.

Kennedy steered clear of policy specifics, generically offering, “a living wage … affordable child care … roads and bridges that won’t rust away, a good education that you can afford [and] a health care system that offers you mercy.” (Kennedy and Guzman both slipped in the Democratic Party’s poll-tested and pundit-maligned platform slogan, “a Better Deal.” Sanders did not.)

What was similar in the four addresses is as important as the differences. Everyone was heavily supportive of the “DREAMers” and immigration in general. Everyone ducked gun control (though Kennedy made a glancing mention of “bullets tearing through our classrooms, concerts, and congregations.”) Everyone kept the focus on domestic policy and shelved talk of foreign policy. Most importantly, everyone sought to bridge America’s divides by melding rhetoric about racial and gender equality with economic fairness.

The attempt to walk the cultural tightrope was laid out most starkly by Kennedy, who summed up the current administration’s policies as a “zero sum game, where for one to win, another must lose. … We are bombarded with one false choice after another. Coal miners or single moms? Rural communities or inner cities? The coast or the heartland?” The Democrats, assured Kennedy, will “choose both.” But Kennedy still tilted toward the Democratic base by explicitly embracing “#MeToo,” “Black Lives Matter” and all those who have been marching against Trump. Did he find the sweet spot that can energize the progressive base without sparking right-wing backlash? No one can know for sure until November.

Democrats’ inability to speak in a singular voice is not in itself debilitating. For most of Barack Obama’s State of the Union addresses, the official Republican response was joined by separate responses from the Tea Party and Sen. Rand Paul (in 2013, Paul gave the Tea Party response). These multiple messages did not stop Republicans from winning elections in 2014 and 2016.

But they did reveal intra-party tensions. The ideological and tactical disagreements sometimes appeared minor to those outside the conservative movement, yet they metastasized in 2016 and led to Trump’s effective takeover of the party.

Does that history suggest a hostile takeover by the Democrats’ left wing in 2020? Edwards sought to tamp down talk of cacophony in advance of her speech, posting on Twitter, “Many audiences, multiple platforms, reaching people no matter where they are. Same message, different voices….”

She’s right that a decentralized media environment requires multiple platforms to maximize reach. But it also means parties can’t easily control who gets on those platforms and what message they will deliver. The Democratic messages were similar, but despite Edwards’ prediction, not quite the same. They may not need one rigidly executed message to triumph in 2018, but as Republicans have learned, sometimes the civil wars come after an election victory—not before it.

Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, and co-host of the show “The DMZ.”

Full text: Announcement on Trey Gowdy retiring

Trey Gowdy is pictured. | AP Photo

Rep. Trey Gowdy, the influential chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said Wednesday he will not seek reelection in 2018. | Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

Rep. Trey Gowdy announced Wednesday that he won’t seek reelection. Below is his full statement, as released by his office.

Words cannot adequately express my gratitude to the people of South Carolina for the privilege of representing them in the House of Representatives. The Upstate of South Carolina has an incredible depth and breadth of assets including numerous women and men capable of representing us. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to serve in the People’s House and-prior to Congress-to advocate on behalf of justice in our court systems.

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I will not be filing for re-election to Congress nor seeking any other political or elected office; instead I will be returning to the justice system. Whatever skills I may have are better utilized in a courtroom than in Congress, and I enjoy our justice system more than our political system. As I look back on my career, it is the jobs that both seek and reward fairness that are most rewarding.

There is no perfect time to make this announcement, but with filing opening in six weeks, it is important to give the women and men in South Carolina who might be interested in serving ample time to reflect on the decision.

To my wife, Terri, and our two children, Watson and Abigail: thank you for all you sacrificed, missed, or did alone so I could serve as both a prosecutor and a member of the House.

To my parents and my three sisters: thank you for having confidence in me and high expectations for me, even when I did not.

To the women and men I worked with at the South Carolina Court of Appeals, the United States District Court, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the 7th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, and in Congress: thank you for the texture, depth and joy you added to life.

To the law enforcement officers and victims of crime: thank you for personifying courage.

To those across South Carolina and our country who, over the past 7 years, have expressed words of encouragement, accountability and even criticism: thank you. All are needed for those in public service.

The book of Ecclesiastes teaches us there is a time and a season for all things. There is a time to start and a time to end. There is a time to come and a time to go. This is the right time, for me, to leave politics and return to the justice system.”