Saturday, March 25, 2017

Shared Schadenfreude

Take a careful look at the shared cracking-up Hillary and Barack are enjoying over the hapless, know-nothing Trump's failure to repeal Obamacare.   He revealed his total ignorance of the issues a few weeks ago when he proclaimed:  "Who knew health care was so complicated?"   Well, these two did.

This photo (which probably was from another time and place, but fits perfectly) was tweeted out by @FTN, who wrote:  "House Republicans learned smearing #ObamaCare was easy.  Governing is hard.:"

And here's how the week ended: Bang!!!

Early Friday afternoon, Republican leaders announced that they were pulling the redrafted health care bill from consideration, meaning that they won't be voting on it after all.   At least not in this form and not now.

The more they tried to change it to gain Freedom Caucus votes, the more mainstream Republican votes were lost.  There just seems no way to bridge that chasm.   With a margin of only 21 or 22 votes to lose, they saw no way forward.

Even the changes they were floating just made the bill worse than it was, even objectively.   The CBO graded the revised bill thus:   premiums would go up, benefits would go down, and deficit relief would be reduced -- even as compared with the GOP's first bill.

Ryan couldn't make the numbers work.  And Trump's reputed negotiating skills didn't work in Washington.

The truth is that Trump didn't care much about health care.   Despite it being one of his biggest campaign slogans ("We're going to repeal Obamacare, which is a total disaster, and replace it with something so great."), it wasn't what he was passionate about.   What he is passionate about is winning;  and, despite what he said, he knew it was going to lose.  He did seem, better than Ryan, to read the signs that this was doomed by the lack of unity within the Republican party.  Or maybe Ryan was blinded by wanting it too much.   To Trump, it was merely an obstacle to getting to what he is passionate about:   tax reform and trade deals.

But let's not forget that to Trump winning is everything.   So, despite the lack of passion about health care, losing his first big legislative act is a huge blow.

What Ryan is passionate about is getting rid of all entitlements.  He's really, really a true-believer in Ayn Rand political philosophy that doesn't want government to do much of anything except encourage business enterprise and get out of the way of the free market.  Ryan saw repealing Obamacare as the first step toward going after Medicaid and eventually Medicare and Social Security.

It will be interesting now to watch what happens to the relationship between Trump and Ryan.   It started very badly during the campaign.   Remember, Trump actually went to Wisconsin and tried to interfere with Ryan's own campaign for re-election.   Then Ryan was very late and very reluctant to endorse Trump, even after he won the nomination.

The only positive spin to put on their relationship is to call it a marriage of convenience.   Now that each has an added grievance against the other about this loss, how will they move forward?    Trump will resent Ryan's push to take up health care first;  and Ryan can claim that Trump's low approval ratings and his ineptitude as a chief executive limited how much persuasive power he could bring to negotiations to bring House Republicans together.

Maybe there's a bit of truth to both.   But the biggest factors in this failure, in my opinion are:  (1)  This was a terrible bill that just got worse as they tried to broaden its appeal to get more votes;   in no way did it improve on Obamacare;  (2) the sharp division ideologically and temperamentally among factions in the House membership itself;  and (3) the awakening of the American people to what was about to be taken away from them, and their remarkably effective activism in protesting to their representatives.

This is a huge, very significant loss for the Republicans generally, and for Ryan and Trump individually.   It calls into question their capacity to govern.

This, perhaps, is the take-away lesson.   Democrats knew they couldn't pass a single-payer plan back in 2009.   So they devised a plan that combined some market-based features with a lot of government-support to make it affordable for everyone.   Now Republicans have tried to devise a market-based plan, and it just can't be done -- if you want to cover everyone equally and be affordable.   They've proved that.   The next step is:   single payer.


Friday, March 24, 2017

Deal-maker-in-chief couldn't make a deal with his own party members

I was never sure whether this was Paul Ryan's health care bill or Donald Trump's.  They both had a lot riding on its success.   But they both lost -- because it is such a lousy deal.

Let's face it.   Health care insurance is a tough thing to work out;  and replacing Obamacare is nearly impossible, because various political ideologies oppose it for different reasons.   Nothing short of Medicare for All type of single payer plan is going to beat the Affordable ObamaCare Act.

You try to make one thing better, and it sets something else off.   The only way to really lower costs without reducing benefits or increasing the number of uninsured people is to go after the administrative costs and the profits made by insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

Here's the solution.   Republicans, just accept defeat on this.  It's impossible enough, and then you tried to add in a huge tax cut for the wealthy.   No way.  The American people see through what you tried to put over on them, and they don't want it now that they finally know the score.  Now that they finally know you've been lying to them.

And then you have to put Democrats back in control, join all the other advanced countries in the world, and provide health care for everyone paid for through a tax system. 

Everybody will come out better -- except those profit-making corporations and their lobbyists.   We'll still need someone to manage the system and to make the drugs.  And, frankly, lobbyists probably have enough salted away to live on quite comfortably.   If not, then it's their turn to hurt a little.

There is no other way.  A market based insurance system for everyone just does not work;  because insurance companies demand a profit, so they try to screen out people who will be high risks -- or else raise the rates so high it's unaffordable.

That's what I think.   Now for a little wisdom from Howard Fineman, who wrote that Donald Trump needs to realize that Washington is not Manhattan, and closing a deal by "bullying people or buying them off with borrowed cash" is not the way to win battles when you're president.   He continued:

"Your job is to find consensus, cajole others into thinking that your vision is theirs.  Projects get 'built' here more with rewards than threats.  It is not a brutal game of 'the last man standing.'  It's 'we're all in this together,' even when the 'we' is just your own party."

Fineman then quoted the late Harvard professor Richard Neustadt, who wrote that "presidents must be careful, anticipatory;  they must listen, adapt, and be collegial, not dictatorial."

To say the least, that will not come easily for this president.   It's doubtful that he can do that, even if he wanted to try.


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Random thoughts on an astonishing week

Here are some random thoughts about this very busy week in the world of politics and government, which has seen both the opening testimony of the House Intelligence Committee on the possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russian officials -- and the hearing for the confirmation of Trump's Supreme Court nominee.

Lurking behind all of this is the distinct possibility that our government may be operating under an illegitimate presidency, if some of the allegations being investigated turn out to be true.   They may not be true, of course.   But, if they are . . . ?

1.  We've become so inured to turmoil coming from Trump World (it both reflects his inner world and is weaponized as a tactic to keep us distracted) that it's hard to take in the significance of Monday's hearing with the FBI's Director Comey.   Let me re-iterate:   the president's campaign, plus other associates, and maybe even the president himself are under investigation for possible collusion with a foreign government to win the election.   Comey also said that, although it is a counterintelligence investigation, it could also contain elements of a criminal investigation as well.

2.   Now, let me pause to clarify that this is an investigation, not a verdict.   It could all turn out to be explained away.   But there are simply too many connections to reasonably be only a coincidence.   That stretches credulity.

3.  Take one of the major players here as an example:   Paul Manafort had a background of having worked to help elect the later-deposed, corrupt head of Ukraine.  He  continued representing the Russia-leaning Yanakovich after his government was overthrown, including being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for lobbying for him in the U.S.   Why would Donald Trump chose a man with that background to be his campaign manager after he fired Corey Lewandowski?   Because that's the kind of person Donald Trump liked to surround himself with.   Manafort had done some lobbying work for Trump before, going back to the 1980s.  

Now even more evidence is turning up of millions of dollars in secret payments to Manafort from Russians and Russian-leaning Ukrainians, some of it concealed in money-laundering schemes.  Just last night, new evidence was reported on NBC that, beginning in 2006, Manafort was being paid $10 million/year by a Russian billionaire oligarch "to influence the interests of Vladimir Putin."  He had submitted a written strategic plan that "would influence politics, business, and news coverage inside the United States, Europe, and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government."  

It further stated that this influence would include "at the highest levels of the United States government:  the White House, Capital Hill, and the State Department."   Manafort insists that he was never working for the Russian government, however.    As we've said before, in Russia, the lines are very unclear on who is and who isn't "the government."  Maybe this $10 million per year from Russia was why Manafort was willing to work for the Trump campaign without a salary, which was touted at the time as a positive thing.   Perhaps his reward would come in some other form.

Here are questions I don't have an answer for.  Did Trump know about Manafort's Russian connections?   Was he in on the deal?  Is Manafort's "influencestill going on?  Chris Hayes interviewed a guest journalist last night (sorry I missed her name), who had reported that Manafort did not disappear when he officially left the Trump campaign in August.  He was known to have been advising behind the scenes, sometimes with daily contact with Trump and/or the transition team, during the transition period.   What's the difference between "advising" and "influencing?"  And is he still doing it?    We don't know.

4.  Manafort's connections should have raised red flags for anyone running for president.   But add to that:  the retired general you chose to be National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, also has Russian connections, having given a paid speech to celebrate an anniversary for the Russian propaganda, English language television station, RT (Russia Today).  At that gala dinner, Flynn (the future NSA Director in the Trump administration) sat next to Vladimir Putin, who gave him a medal from the Russian government.   For what?   Not exactly clear.

Add to that the more fringe hangers-on who had deep and enduring connections in Russia (and could have been secret couriers for the Trump campaign) Carter Paige and Roger Stone.  And then there's Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who it now turns out has had a long time association with former Breitbar News editor, now Trump senior adviser, Stephen Bannon.   So is Sessions the Trump connection to all these others?  Sessions himself had two meetings during the campaign period with the Russian ambassador that may, or may not, be significant.  He says it was in his role as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Then there's J.D. Gordon, National Security Director for the Trump campaign, who finally acknowledged that it was he who forced the RNC Platform committee to make the only change Trump asked for -- as the president who was going to officially run on this platform.  Gordon insisted on, and got, a weakening in the language for our support for Ukraine to defend itself against Russia.  The only thing a presidential candidate wants to influence in the platform is the balance of U.S. support away from Ukraine and toward Russia -- which was a sharp reversal, by the way.     Think of that, in the context of everything else about the Trump team and Russia.   Did Gordon do this at the behest of Manafort?   Or was Trump also involved?

There's more.   Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who, as CEO of Exxon/Mobile negotiated an extraordinarly huge oil field deal with Russians.  He has many connections in Russia -- presumably all business connections, but with Russia it's hard to draw the line).  Now Tillerson has just announced that, instead of attending the NATO Conference in April, he has a trip planned to Russia.   You'd think that, with all the hoopla in the air about Trump/Russia, you'd want to avoid at least the appearance of choosing Russia over NATO.

5.  It's already been repeatedly obvious throughout the campaign that Trump refrains from uttering the slightest criticism of Putin or his actions, while he almost routinely insults our closest allies.    Remember his praise for Putin, saying that he admires Putin's kind of strong leadership, that he is a stronger leader than Obama, and that Putin is the kind of leader he would hope to be.    When asked about Putin's penchant for having journalists and opposition leaders killed, Trump's response was, essentially, we've done it too.   "You think we're so innocent?"

All that is just coincidence?   I don't think so.

6.   Moving away from Trump/Russia, there was the Gorsuch hearing.   He managed, even more than his recent predecessors, to avoid answering any questions that would tip his hand on any issues.   The questions about this hang more on what the Democrats will do, rather than Gorsuch himself.    Will they rise above the fact that the Republicans stole this SCOTUS seat, that it was rightly Obama's to fill?   And will they refuse any votes for Gorsuch because of that?    Chris Matthews gave an impassioned discussion of that last night on his MBNBC "Hardball" news show.  

Matthews' and others' point is that the law and tradition around appointments have been broken by the Republicans.   You can't fix it just by rising above and going about usual business.   The Republicans stole this seat from the Democrats in that the vacancy occurred during a Democrat's term as president, and Republicans refused even to talk to the nominee.

In addition, Obama made a gesture toward bipartisanship by nominating someone who represents not the left wing of liberalism but a rather centrist position on sensitive issues.   Republicans responded, not with a bipartisan hand reaching out, but with a slap in the face.   You can't pretend that didn't happen.   Nor that Trump has nominated someone who is said to be even further to the right than Scalia, the justice he would replace.

On top of that, this is now a president under investigation, who could turn out to be an illegitimate president.   So to let him have his SCOTUS choice while that is still a cloud hanging over the White House is a compromise too far.

7, 8, 9 . . .   There's so much more.   Trump's really awful demeanor with the most important political figure in Europe, Angela Merkel at her White House visit.  The near-collapse of the Trump-Ryan Health Care Bill, to be voted on by the House on Thursday, and would most likely fail in the Senate, even if it passes the House. 

Some people are grumbling about the announcement that Ivanka Trump now has an office in the West Wing and is being vetted for a top security clearance as an unpaid adviser to her dad.   Personally, I don't oppose this in these special circumstances.   Ivanka is probably the best thing he has, and she -- even more than Kellyanne Conway -- is able to tone him down and reason with him.    So I'd say give her what she needs to keep this child-man we have given all this power to on a slightly saner track.

It's not a lot different from Rosalyn Carter's role in the Carter administration.  Not that she had to keep her husband sane, but he depended on her as his first sounding board and intimate adviser who knew him better than anyone.   Ivanka may be the only one who can actually say "no" to Donald Trump   If it ever comes to trying to persuade him to resign, the family will be crucial.   And Ivanka and her husband Jared are obviously the ones he trusts the most.


PS:  The days' news keeps expanding.   On a late interview with NBC, Rep. Adam Schiff, highest ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told Chuck Todd that the committee now has "evidence that is more than circumstantial of collusion between the Russians and members of the Trump campaign.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Intelligence Committee hearing possibly rivals Watergate in historic significance

In the opening hearing of the House Intelligence Committee investigation of the connections between associates of Donald Trump and the Russians during the campaign, FBI Director James Comey and Director of National Intelligence Agency Admiral Michael Rogers testified.    Comey began his testimony with this statement:

"I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.  That includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts."

Here are some high points of the day:

1.  Comey affirmed that an investigation of the Russians' attempt to influence the 2016 election has been underway since last July.   The investigation will include whether there is evidence of collusion with the Russians by the Trump associates.  He had already released the FBI's conclusions that the Russians did the hacking and that their use of materials found on the computers of the DNC and Clinton's campaign chief John Podesta did have an influence on the election.

2.  Comey said that the FBI had no evidence to support Trump's claim that President Obama "tapped his wires," nor was there any evidence found in a thorough search at the FBI that anyone had put Trump and his campaign under surveillance of any kind.   Adm. Rogers, a Trump appointee as DNI, affirmed the same about the NSA having no evidence of that.  (That is, Trump lied, although Comey did not use that word.)

3,  Comey also testified, as did Adm. Rogers, that they have no evidence that Obama had gotten the British intelligence agencies to do the tapping for him.   The British had already responded with indignation that such a charge would be made by our president, because it is antithetical to agreements we have with this close ally.   If Trump had a boss who could fire him, he would have been gone before this.  But only the American people can do that through impeachment.    We may get there.

4.  In answer to a question of whether Trump was correct when he tweeted that Comey had found that Russians did not interfere with the vote in our election, Comey said that is not what he said and is not correct.  He clarified that their investigation did not include monitoring the actual election.  (In blunter terms, Trump lied, again.   Actually, I'm not sure this one is a lie.   It's possible that he simply does not understand the difference between "investigated and found no evidence" and "simply wasn't what we investigated so we can't say whether they did or not."  We need to lower expectations of this man's ability to get even pretty obvious nuance.)

5.  The Republicans on the committee focused almost exclusively on questions about the leakers rather than the evidence that was leaked.   One might even say that -- as the majority of the members of the Intelligence Committee charged with investigating this matter -- they are participating in the cover-up by showing so little concern about the Russians' role in this, as well as the possible criminal activity of the president's associates.

6.  This whole thing is extraordinary -- and historically unprecedented.   We have the president's campaign associates, some of his White House staff, and possibly even the president himself under an FBI criminal investigation that conceivably could result in criminal charges of treason.

7.  Consider this:  Back during the transition, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn sat in on the CIA security briefings with then President-Elect Trump.   Now we know that he was under investigation at the time for possible collusion with the Russians.  At the time, we heard that Flynn was so aggressive in questioning the briefing officials that Chris Christie, who was also present, tried to calm him down.   As a retired general and former head of National Intelligence, perhaps Flynn knew they were withholding information because of his presence.   Maybe the CIA already knew enough about his contact with the Russians to doubt his loyalty.

8.   John Dean was the Richard Nixon White House Counsel who resigned and became a cooperative witness during the Watergate investigation.   Chris Hayes interviewed him about the current situation, which many are saying could be worse than Watergate.    He made the important point that this is still early in the investigation, but he said that the Trump administration is in "cover-up mode,"   Here's more from Dean:

"I've been inside a cover-up. [before he resigned as Nixon's counsel]  I know how they look and feel.   And every signal they're sending is:  'we're covering this thing up.'  Experienced investigators know this.   They know how people react when they're being pursued, and this White House is not showing their innocence, they're showing how damn guilty they are.  That's what we're seeing."

Dean continued, drawing the parallels from Watergate as to how the administration tries to distance itself from those shown to have been involved -- just as they're now doing -- trying to say that Paul Manafort had a "very limited" role for a short time (he was campaign manager for five months, including the RNC convention) and that Mike Flynn was "just a volunteer."   Dean called this "classic cover-up."

10.  Ranking Intelligence Committee member, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), ended his opening statement by asking rhetorically if all the numerous Trump associates with Russian connections, plus the obvious favorable attitude toward Putin and Russia displayed by Trump himself, while he insults our allies and NATO -- whether all this could simply be the result of coincidence.   His answer was: yes, it could be.    But, he added, "it is also possible, maybe even more than possible, that it is not coincidence.   We do not know the answer . . . yet.   But we need to find out."

11.   If Schiff was running the committee, rather than the ranking member of the opposing party, I would be satisfied.   But I do not trust the Republican majority to do a thorough investigation of a  Russian  Republican administration.  (That was an actual, unconscious slip, by the way.)  Their trying to shift the focus to the leakers, rather than the possible treason being exposed, is proof that we must have a high level, independent, bipartisan commission.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Nothing to investigate about Trump's "wiretap"

[Two short ones today to make up for the extra long post yesterday.]

Despite widespread derision, as well as authoritative denials of any evidence, President Trump continues to maintain that there is something to be investigated in his claim that Obama wiretapped his phone.

Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday.   She called on Trump to "explain to us on the Intelligence Committee and to the American people" so that they can "get to the bottom of this."

Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, responded by saying that he differed with Sen. Collins on this.  "We are at the bottom of this," he said.  "There is nothing at the bottom."

So then the question becomes:   Why doesn't Trump stop pretending there is?


Comey says FBI is investigating Trump team

In a hearing with the House Intelligence Committee yesterday, FBI Director James Comey confirmed this:

"I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.  That includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts. . . .

"As you know, our practice is not to confirm the existence of ongoing investigations, especially those investigations that involve classified matters.   But in unusual circumstances, where it is in the public interest, it may be appropriate to do so.  This is one of those circumstances."

Comey also said that the investigation has been ongoing since last July.    I hope some Democrat member of the Committee asks him why it wasn't in the public interest before the November election, when he called a press conference to talk about the investigation of Hillary Clinton's email use.

That is very disturbing.   Perhaps he has some reason for that difference, but at this point it seems highly suspect that it was not only the Russians who were trying to influence the election.


Monday, March 20, 2017

Taking stock of the Trump "administration"

Howard Fineman is a political analyst who writes occasional pieces for the Huffington Post.  He is particularly good at taking a step back from the day to day turmoil -- putting aside the outrageous lies and unpresidential behavior -- to look at the underlying structure and process of this (so-called) administration.  I think it's worth reading this through for the larger perspective on Donald Trump's first two months ru(i/n)ning the country.

*     *     *     *     *
Donald Trump took the oath of office two months ago, but is not yet running a real presidency.  His administration, thus far, largely is playing like a junta that surprised the royal guard and seized the palace -- while still remaining unable to pacify the capital city, let along inspire the countryside.
The White House is as stately as ever, but there aren't enough friends outside the (porous) iron gates to make the inhabitants as comfortable as they should be in the first months of a new regime.   Rather, Trump is under siege from pretty much all sides.

Federal courts again are slapping down Trump's first, signature move:  a temporary travel ban on citizens from predominantly Muslim countries that he says harbor "radical Islamic terrorists."

The joint Trump-GOP effort to "repeal and replace" Obamacare -- another key first promise and response -- is bogged down in multiple internal Republican divisions over everything from spending numbers to philosophy to legislative strategy.

With growing sharpness and specificity, GOP leaders are joining Democrats in dismissing as flat-out false the president's repeatedly tweeted charge that former President Barack Obama "tapped" -- surveilled in any way -- Trump Tower or its owner.

Trump's new guns-and-no-butter first budget, which would literally take food from the poor and elderly to give more money to Pentagon contractors, has been greeted with derision by many Republicans, who regard it as less of a blueprint than a political statement too harsh even for the Tea Party.

The nonpartisan polling "job approval" numbers for Trump have been in the 40s consistently in the first few months, and are the lowest launch average on record for a new president.

Trump has had his successes.  They include the assembly, after some fits and starts, of a good -- or at least credible -- national security team of respected current and former members of the military or Congress.  As a result, there is a solid chain of command for Trump in  his role as commander in chief.

He nominated a man to the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch, to whom the American Bar Association gave a sterling endorsement.

Trump has issued some executive orders that make good on other campaign promises -- such as gutting of EPA regulations on the use of coal, building pipelines, getting out of multinational trade treaties and instituting tougher domestic rules on the apprehension and repatriation of undocumented immigrants.

His tweets and campaign-style speeches, vowing tax cuts and the twisting of corporate arms to "buy and build American," have had an effect.   The stock market has been on a wild run.

But these successful measures -- the exception to the general pattern -- were comparatively amenable to direct White House control.

Everything else is harder to control or even withstand.    And the dangers of drift are real.   He elicited a new sense of hope from white working-class voters;  their cynicism will deepen if he doesn't deliver the jobs -- especially since his proposed new budget cuts are aimed at programs in rural counties.

Trump could well be tempted by the slow pace of change to ignore the law, especially since his aides, led by Steve Bannon, are telling him that the so-called "deep state" is itself a lawless force and is out to get him to preserve its own status.

He could use military confrontation -- such as the one brewing now with North Korea -- to emphasize the broad powers of a commander-in-chief who can't be easily countermanded by institutions that constrain him now.  Another terrorist attack on the "homeland" would give him rationale -- if not justification -- for sweeping new executive actions in the United States.

Leaders around the world, already confused and unsure of American leadership, could distance themselves further from U.S. aims and interests -- no matter how much more money Trump spends on modernizing the military and putting boots on the ground.

Why does a man who claims such great success as a business manager seems so overwhelmed?

Democrats have taken their time filling his Cabinet, arguing, with much justification, that Trump had presented them with a roster of conflict-laden billionaires and ideologues antagonistic to the goals of the departments they had been nominated to lead.  But there are a host of reasons for the first months' mess.  Here they are:

He only wants to talk to people who have no choice but to agree with him, or who are glad to tell him why his enemies are scum.

I know poll-takers who shied away from doing polls for Trump because they knew that the numbers would not be favorable -- and that Trump therefore would never hire them.  "I turned down lots of jobs with him for that reason," one of them told me.  "You never give Trump bad news.   Which means that he is constantly infuriated when his yes men are forced to tell him the world says "no."

He has to lash out somewhere, and that place is still Twitter.

The Trump administration has been annoyed and distracted for a week -- a crucial week on the budget and on health care, among other things -- by the president's false accusation of Obama's purported "tapping."  He never should have said it.   But he almost always does.

D.C. is not New York;  politics is not real estate.

Trump's tactical principle is that if someone "hits" you, you "hit back twice as hard."  I have heard him say it in private as well as in public, and it is a method he has used since he came to Manhattan decades ago with a million bucks from his dad.  But the paradox of the presidency is this:  You are the most powerful person in the world, but in dealing with the rest of government and all of politics, it's better not to make threats, and certainly not threats in public.  Everything Trump thought he knew about how to get things done in the midst of controversy is wrong now.

This is not a parliamentary system, it just looks like one.

The Founding Fathers knew that parliaments could be dictatorial, which is why they chose not to have one.  They dispersed and divided power.  Even when one American party controls the White House and both chambers of Congress, a president's clout is limited by the size of the majorities, legislative rules and the courts.   Trump can almost be forgiven for thinking that he had parliamentary power:  Politics in America has been drifting in the one-party-rules direction for years.  Obama passed his health care bill with only Democratic votes;  Trump figured he could pass his with only the GOP.  That already has been proven to be a faulty assumption.

The GOP doesn't really like him, and the feeling is mutual.

Unlike Ronald Reagan, Trump did not build from the ground up a new party and a new movement that he then led in the White House.  Trump essentially carried out a hostile takeover of the rundown hulk of the GOP, battered by the unpopular presidency of George W. Bush and the rebellious, internal assaults of the tea party.  Virtually every key figure in the House and Senate was for someone other than Trump, and some of them ran against him.  Trump swept the primaries with money and jingoistic salesmanship, but he remains widely distrusted ideologically and personally on all sides.

Trump and Co. were elected because they'd had nothing to do with government -- and it shows.

The "transition planning" cobbled together by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was a joke, and even that work was ignored by the coup plotters who burst into the White House.  Almost no one in Trump's inner circle had any executive experience in government.  The list of rank amateurs in the highest places includes son-in-law Jared Kushner, chief of staff Reince Priebus, policy strategist Stephen Miller and counselor Kellyanne Conway.  They are big into concepts and messages -- sales, Trump style -- but so far not the blocking and tackling of running things.

Benign neglect.

If they want, the amateurs can console themselves with a semi-philosophical excuse:  The government, which they regard as too big and too intrusive, can use a little neglect.  And so we see unfilled sub-Cabinet posts, catch-as-catch-can administrative oversight, rule by fiat that demoralizes the denizens of what White House Big Thinker Steve Bannon calls "the administrative state."  Misusing a fancy academic word, he says he's for "deconstructing" it -- and why not do it by not filling positions or following procedure?

Worse:  a contempt for the process of government.

Republicans have joined Democrats in marveling at the sophomoric crafting of something as valuable to Trump -- allegedly -- as his moratoria on travel to the U.S. by citizens of six (originally seven) Muslim-majority countries.  But the sloppiness is a sign of the contempt with which Team Trump views government itself.  Yes, the Obama Nerds went over the line -- for example, some of what they did on drones is outrageous, many argue.  But perhaps because they were Democrats (and lawyers for the most part, led by Obama, himself) they showed enough respect for procedure that they got things done.

What goes around comes around.

Team Trump seems shocked and outraged that so many forces in public life seemed arrayed against him, almost by instinct.  What did he expect?  He attacked the press at every turn, and at his rallies all but sicced rabble-rousers on them.  He attacked a federal judge as biased because he was of Mexican heritage.  He called his rivals for the GOP nomination by crude nicknames, and reveled publicly in their humiliation.  He hired and fired at will, dismissing aides but pulling them back in (because they could cause trouble for him in one way or another) with flattering phone calls.

The Senate alone is a monument to possible payback.  Do "Lyin'" Ted Cruz, "Little Marco" Rubio, "One-Percent" Lindsey Graham, "Crazy" Rand Paul and "He's No Hero" John McCain want to help the president out in a pinch?   Trump tried to have House Speaker Paul Ryan defeated in his local GOP primary in Wisconsin.   Yes, Rubio and Cruz accepted dinner invitations at the White House.  They said they had fun, but revenge is a meal best served cold.

Money isn't everything in D.C.

With his proud contempt for ethics -- or even the need to appear ethical -- Trump and his family are making a mockery of the notion that public service is a selfless exercise in patriotism.  Trump has turned the presidency, at least in part, into a commercial enterprise that is enriching his family wealth.  But as cool as that might seem in at least some avaricious circles in Manhattan and Palm Beach, it doesn't impress anyone in Washington, a city that needs money, but that doesn't really value it per se.  Money can buy you the White House, as Trump proved, but it can't buy you D.C.  Trump has yet to understand that people in the city care about the law, or at least procedure, because it is power.


A mast of cunning, apocalyptic, xenophobic narrative, Steve Bannon has given Trump a grander mission -- that of saving the Christian West from Islam, materialism, Wall Street, Hollywood, the Ivy League and the "Mainstream Media."  Reared and educated in a blue-collar, conservative Catholic family in Virginia, Bannon's radical medievalism fits Trump's royal conception of himself.  But the risk is that the president will remain oblivious to what is going on outside the reality TV show Bannon has designed for him to live in, or that Trump will think that he has the kind of kingly authority that allows him to ignore the best parts of the Founder's vision of a pluralistic, secular and welcoming America.

Too many cooks.

Bannon is not the only power center, despite having placed himself on the National Security Council and having created a new "Strategic Initiative Group" inside the White House with himself as head.  Other power centers (for now) include Vice President Mike Pence, Priebus and Kushner, not to mention Hill leaders.  So who controls the message in these crucial days and weeks?  No one, except perhaps the person who has created the most trouble for the White House:   Donald J. Trump.

*     *     *     *     *
Thanks, Howard Fineman, for such a lucid explanation of the mess.   Now, what do we do about it?


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Trump's cold shoulder treatment of Angela Merkel

Here's something I recommend:   Find all the video clips you can of joint press coverage of Donald Trump and his guest Angela Merkel.   Turn off the sound, and just watch their body language.    It's so awkwardly painful to watch Trump's glum demeanor, his silently ignoring her suggestion that they do a handshake for the photographers, and his avoiding ever making any eye contact with her.

The best tweet I've seen about this so far is from @TeaPainUSA:
"Today we have a smart, level-headed and decisive leader in Washington, D.C.   Too bad she has to go back to Germany."

Let them eat fighter jets. Trump budget spends more on military, deportation, and the Wall; but cuts EPA, diplomacy, Meals on Wheels for seniors

One headline said that a budget is a moral document, meaning that where you choose to spend your money indicates something about your values.   Clearly the Trump budget values military hardware over diplomacy and building relationships with other nations.

It builds up the military that already is, by far, the most powerful one in the world, while the budget for the State Department is being cut by about 30%.   That budget doesn't just pay for embassies around the world to do the necessary work of passports, visas and helping travelers.  It also includes programs like AID (the Agency for International Development) to partner with developing nations on projects that end extreme poverty and promote resilient democratic societies.  This program accounts for only 1% of our federal budget, but it buys us invaluable respect and appreciation and thus advances our security worldwide.

One example of such projects was in Nigeria.  Because of our help in setting up a public health program there, they were able to play a pivotal role in limiting the spread of the Ebola virus throughout Africa and keeping it from coming to the US.

It's disturbing that, at least in his public statements, our new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is fine with this sharply cut budget.   There is no hint in his apparent attitude that he is not on board with this drastic downsizing of his department.  They got rid of most of the upper level, career staff who have the experience to maintain such programs.

Other programs that have been axed are the Meals on Wheels program for seniors and school nutrition for kids from poor families.  The White House Budget Director said that "It's just not cost effective."  His talking point is that they're not going to keep asking the single mother with two kids to give her hard-earned money to pay for programs that don't show results.   I'd like to know his criteria for "not showing results" when the goal is feeding hungry people.

President Trump, in an interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox News, was asked if he realized that his budget cuts were going to affect people who voted for him more than most groups.   He acknowledged this, but his reply was typically Trumpian:   When criticized, he pivots and washes his hands of whatever it is.   He said, about the budget, "Well, this is just a blueprint.  Congress hasn't weighed in on it yet."

But Paul Ryan had just been all over tv, emphasizing how his budget advisers had been at the White House "every day," working closely with the administration on crafting the budget.   The truth is that this is very much Paul Ryan's baby, and Trump has little idea of what the budget does, much less the implications for real life.

One expert, who heard Trump being interviewed about the budget said it was obvious that Trump had no understanding of budgets -- just like he didn't realize that he was putting Stephen Bannon on the National Security Council when he signed that executive order that Bannon put in from on him.

This is where the late, great journalist Molly Ivins would sum it up by saying:  "Folks, we're in deep shit."