Monday, May 22, 2017

The Clock Just Started, and This May All Go Down Faster Than We Think

Though many are claiming that it is "too soon to be using the 'I' word," Steve sees the unraveling of the Trump presidency to be a rapidly accelerating snowball that may be resolved far more quickly than think.

It sure seemed odd that Rod Rosenstein’s letter supposedly justifying the firing of James Comey focused exclusively on the FBI Director’s actions regarding Hillary Clinton. Why would Trump’s newly appointed Deputy Attorney General write a memo that could be interpreted to be a validation of the theory that the election had been inappropriately tilted toward Donald Trump?

Now that we have gotten to know the surprising Mr. Rosenstein a bit better, a new theory is worth considering.

Brand new in his role, and immediately put under intense pressure by Trump to cook up a justification for a firing that he may not have felt ready to endorse, Rosenstein may have intentionally authored the one argument that he was sure the boss would refuse to air publicly.  Trump will never release this letter, Rosenstein probably thought. He’d be shooting himself in the foot!

Rosenstein, however, failed to grasp the depth of Donald Trump’s ham-fisted clumsiness and utter lack of nuance.  We now know Trump was itching to fire Comey as quickly as possible, so he took Rosenstein’s letter and instantly released it, pasting the firing on Rosenstein. Then Trump hung Rosenstein out to dry two days later when he told Lester Holt that he would have fired Comey regardless of Rosenstein’s opinion.

When you’ve been hired, manipulated, used, spun, spit out, and thrown under the bus in the amount of time it takes most new employees to sign all the HR forms, your nerves might be a bit frayed, and you might be really pissed off.

Or maybe – just maybe -- you are a lifetime officer of the law who happens to be a patriot first and a partisan second.

If our country survives Donald Trump, Rosenstein may go down in history as one of the people on whom the fate of the Republic turned. Rosenstein’s leather-balls decision to name Robert Mueller as Special Prosecutor without even telling his boss Jeff Sessions or Trump himself was a great act of political courage. In his swift and confident exercise of appropriate authority, his timing, and his personnel selection, Rod Rosenstein may as well have been galloping at midnight and shouting “One if by land, and two if by sea!” He seized his moment in history to do the right thing for his country.

There is now a palpable feeling that with the appointment of the formidable, righteous, and determined Mueller, the timer on Trump’s day with destiny has begun ticking. While the Congressional committees seemed moribund, mired in the molasses of partisan gamesmanship, Mueller now has the institutional authority and personal charisma to take the FBI investigation the full distance.  And what all lefties must deal with is the simple fact that if Robert Mueller concludes that there is no case against Trump, then it is time to nod, accept, and move on.

But let’s interpret the widespread, bipartisan endorsement of Mueller’s appointment as an indication that there are very serious allegations on the table, and it is time to learn the truth.  Mueller’s appointment has set the endgame – one way or another – in motion, and a key question is how long it the process will take.

There has been no shortage of posts, articles, and televised opinion pieces that scold pundits and politicians for invoking the “I” word, and for doing so at what is somehow perceived to be at an inappropriately early stage. It is as if Letitia Baldridge had written a lesser-known book on the etiquette of removing a sitting president, with an entire chapter devoted to when it is appropriate for the socially graceful host or hostess to serve the Commander-in-Chief a soupçon of articles of impeachment.

Many of these articles sagaciously count the number of steps and likely pace that would make any such proceeding arduous and protracted. Others point out that it will take an extraordinarily painstaking investigative process for new Special Prosecutor Mueller to unravel the mystery of what really happened between the Trump Campaign and Russian intelligence operatives.  Some rightly point out that Trump’s latest defiant tweets indicate an intention to stonewall, which could trigger long pauses as subpoenas (think Trump’s taxes) are issued, ignored, and then contested in court. Some remind us of the more than two year interval between the Watergate break-in and Nixon’s resignation.  And then there are the bend-over-backward liberals who insist that due process will take a long time, as if a slow pace is the only sure proof that the investigation and trial has been deliberate, sober, thorough, and responsible.

Maybe.  But 2017 is not 1867 or even 1974. In a world that runs on :60/:60/24/7/365 internet speed, there is an argument to be made that the fate of Donald Trump will play out on Instagram timing, with the entire spectacle unfolding in the roughly the amount of time it took Donald Trump to hire an apprentice. Welcome to Law and Order: Presidential High Crimes and Misdemeanors Unit, Season One. Just sixteen episodes with the must-see-tv finale timed to air in the next Nielsen rating sweeps.

Why might this unfold at heretofore unheard of speed? The answer lies in the reality that the impeachment and conviction of a president is one part legal, one part shamelessly political, and one part purely personal.  The outcome will involve as many off-camera human judgments, opinions, and political calculations as it will smoking gun evidence and courtroom drama.  But the most important point is this: once it is clear to Republicans in contested districts and states that an impeachable offense has been committed and perceive Donald Trump to be radioactive waste, it will be in the interest of all parties – even Donald Trump – to get this all behind us. Fast.

If that is the case, Donald Trump’s presidency may soon resemble one of Kim Jong-un’s errant missile tests: never successfully off the ground, never achieving sufficient velocity, pulled back to earth by an overpowering gravity, burning and exploding on re-entry.  At just about that speed.

There are a number of reasons to believe this is true.

The first – and most important -- is that there are not simply one but two impeachment-grade acts that seem to be in advanced stages of investigation.  

The first is the possibility that Trump was aware of and approved of collusion between his campaign and the Russian government to influence the outcome of the election. For months, senior Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn appear to have been under intense scrutiny for possible collusion with the Russians, and that the critical question would be whether the FBI could ever prove that Trump was aware of and approving their activities. But a bombshell landed this past Friday with the revelation that the FBI is actively investigating an individual who is currently serving – right this minute --as a “senior advisor to the President of the United States” for possible collusion.  The puzzle here is that there simply are not that many people in Trump’s inner circle now who were also there then. This has led to the buzz that the “senior advisor” under scrutiny could well be Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law.  If that is the case, we are no longer operating in a scenario where  Manafort or Flynn were talking freelance trash with the Russkies at a distance from which Trump could maintain plausible deniability. Kushner has been handed responsibility for almost every major initiative in the Trump White House, and is considered Trump’s closest and most trusted advisor. If he is implicated in the collusion, it appears unimaginable that Trump was unaware.

The second impeachable offense has been played out so openly and transparently that most people seem to fail to grasp its implications. Donald Trump has essentially admitted – repeatedly, once on national television, and once to Russian diplomats in the Oval Office – that he fired FBI Director Comey as a way of slowing the pace of the FBI investigation into collusion. Donald Trump said as much to Lester Holt in a televised interview, and told the Russians that firing Comey “took pressure off him” about the Russian investigation. Firing Comey in order to slow down, side-track, inhibit, or in any way impede this investigation is obstruction of justice.  Case closed.

As if Trump’s own words to NBC or the Russians were not enough, we have the amazing claim from James Comey that Trump attempted to personally strong-arm him in private, closed-door meetings, pointedly asking for commitments of Comey’s personal “loyalty” in one instance and for Comey to “let go” of the investigation of Flynn in another. Trump has already denied making the latter request. What is delicious about this situation is that if it comes down to one man’s word against another, Trump will finally – perhaps for the first time – understand the cost of having been a serial, projectile, incessant, and unrepentant liar for his entire adult life.  No doubt someone is doing the polling about whether Americans believe Comey or Trump, and the President of the United States is not going to like that answer one bit.

With the case for two impeachable offenses appearing to be far along, there is a second factor that argues for a very rapid unfolding of events. Woodward and Bernstein were patiently and periodically guided by “Deep Throat,” an extremely high-ranking government officer who steered their path toward the truth about Nixon. Today, however, we have a veritable army of informants inside the Trump White House and our intelligence agencies, and each appears to have a favorite New York Times or Washington Post reporter on speed dial. Information about Trump’s bumbling is pouring out of the government from patriots who know that the Times and the Post will do what  Republican government officials – largely Trump supplicants and enablers -- will not: publicize the shocking ignorance, incompetence, and disregard for law of the Trump administration.

What this means is that breaking news about both Trump’s ongoing misjudgments as well as Mueller’s investigation are going to fly directly to the front page of the Times, the Post, and on the news channels in real time. If the FBI discovers a smoking gun establishing that Trump was aware of collusion by Manafort, Flynn, or the “current senior advisor,” Mueller will be unable to hide it as he attempts to build a comprehensive case.  The Times will print it, Anderson Cooper broadcast it, and Stephen Colbert will have delivered a scathing monologue about it that will go viral before America goes to bed.

Should damning allegations or incontrovertible proof of wrongdoing come to light, Mueller will have a very tough time resisting public pressure to bring whatever charges he may have as soon as is possible.  At that point, there will be a growing sense of urgency to extract Trump from power before he attempts to use that power to lash out at those who he perceives to be unfairly attacking him.   

Which brings us to the real game of politics, human judgments, and calculations.

Right now the Republicans hold all the cards on any impeachment proceedings. They have a commanding hold in the House, where a simple majority vote is necessary to ratify articles of impeachment. And while the Senate is evenly split, a conviction on impeachment charges requires a two-thirds majority. Right now, if Donald Trump did go out and, as he once mused, shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue, the Republicans control the process and would not have to impeach him or remove him if they did not feel inclined. The Republican Party appears to have long since lost its soul and moral compass, somehow clinging to a hollow belief that retaining its control of Congress is more important than having a philosophy of governance.  Republicans will not turn on Donald Trump for mere crimes and misdemeanors if they believe he is a help rather than a hindrance in holding Congress.

However, they will turn on Trump if they fear that he is imperiling that hold. It will be a practical motivation – not ideological, moral, or patriotic -- that brings Republicans around on the matter of impeachment.

Right now, right this minute, Republicans who compete in contested electoral offices are beginning to weigh the consequences of unquestioned fealty to this train wreck of a presidency.

Indeed, some might argue that the worst possible scenario is that Mueller takes a year to mount an unquestionable, comprehensive, open-and-shut case for impeachment, and then announces his findings a week before the 2018 mid-term elections.  Uh, that would be, right about that same time in 2016 that one James Comey pulled out his Weiner emails and crushed Hillary Clinton’s chance for the presidency.  Instant Karma’s gonna get you.

Every Republican has to be gaming how this ends, when it ends, and how long to let Trump drive the car in this game of chicken before bailing out.

And everyone also remembers the scene in Titanic when the captain turns to the ship’s architect and pouts, “But this ship can’t sink!” The architect’s chilling reply: “She’s made of iron sir. I assure you, she can, and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.” 

What is less likely to be remembered is the captain’s next question: “How much time?”

Four months into this presidency, there are already four full-on investigations into presidential malfeasance, a seemingly bottomless well of new revelations about prior questionable activities, and a fresh dose of constitutionally questionable behavior with each unforgiving news cycle.

Republicans in swing districts and states have to be searching the tea leaves, Ouija Boards, and palm readers for some indication about how much time they have before their blind allegiance to Trump costs them re-election.

Perhaps they are just waiting to see if any party leader has the courage to be the first to break ranks. Morally bankrupt, Republicans need a note from their parents to do the right thing.

When the Republican dam breaks, it does not have to be a flood of Biblical proportions. Gerrymandered districts will leave many Republicans thoroughly insulated from public outcry.  But there will be many who are terrified of a Trump stain in the 2018 mid-terms, and who were never terribly crazy about him as the candidate to begin with. Those Republicans could actually race out in front of Mueller and out in front of the Democrats in their eagerness to distance themselves from Trump’s toxic orange half-life.  

But that is only the second component that could accelerate the trajectory.

We noted that there were three acts in the impeachment play: One part law, one part politics, and then there’s that one part personal.  How does the human being react?

The most interesting question will be to see what Donald Trump will do if the investigation reveals smoking machine guns and Republicans begin to abandon ship.

It will place him in a position where the warring armies in his psyche finally come face-to-face in battle. 

On one side of the brain, Donald Trump is a fighter who kicks and scratches and will do anything to survive, as his greatest mortal fear is being revealed -- and permanently branded -- as a “loser.” That side of Donald Trump would insist on a full trial, and would spend his time alone in the oval office creating diversions and terrifying the nation that he would risk World War III rather than become the first and only president ever removed from office through the impeachment process.

On the other side of his cerebrum is the Donald Trump who is lightning fast to figure out why his every failure is someone else’s fault, and that even Donald Trump – the greatest human being who has ever walked the face of the earth – could not be expected to surmount the obstacles that all the haters have thrown in his way. That Donald Trump gets bored, frustrated, and tells America to screw off. He quits, returns to Mar-a-Lago, and spends the rest of his life humiliating the Republican Party with endless invective about how unfairly he has been tweeted.

He has, after all, already said that the investigation commissioned by his own Deputy Attorney General and to be run by the former head of the FBI is a “witch hunt.” Rod Rosenstein is going to get a chuckle if Donald Trump floats.

Trump would quit rather than subject himself to a trial. In his every decision, his need to convey that he is in control of his own destiny is paramount. Quitting gives him the satisfaction of saying it was his decision.

Equally important to Trump: his brand. He simply would not be able to deal with being the first and only president to be removed from office through impeachment. 

And let us not forget: at a certain point, the issue of criminal liability comes into the picture. Donald Trump would not dare an impeachment trial if a criminal trial loomed beyond. He would not risk jail time for something as trivial as, say, leading the United States of America. He would cut a deal.

All of which brings us to our final comment on the speed of this process. If Trump indeed were to resign, that alone would cut months and months out of the resolution.

Rod Rosenstein’s decision to hire Robert Mueller has started the clock ticking. In the ever-accelerating pace of our no-secrets, :60/:60/24/7/365-paced-world, this game of chess will be played with a ten-second timer.

Now it’s Mueller time in America. For the first time since that dark day in November, we can sense the resurgence of truth and the rule of law.

Thank you Rod Rosenstein, for your midnight ride. It may turn out to be a lot shorter than everyone expects.




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Monday, May 15, 2017

Trump's Comey-Phobia: Symptom of a Bigger Disease

Trump's decision to fire Comey is indicative of a far bigger issue. Here is Steve's take on a week that should make us all very concerned indeed. 


Have you noticed the interesting new pattern that has emerged in the Trump White House? Sean Spicer is deemed capable of handling the routine flow of day-to-day obfuscation and misinformation, but when Trump needs to sell a truly weapons-grade deception, he pulls Kellyanne Conway out of the closet and goes factually alternative, freeing her to open fire with her bullshit howitzer.

So when Kellyanne was all over the full spectrum of flavored news channels on Wednesday, you knew the White House needed to spin their explanation of the Comey firing at speeds only previously achieved at the Bern nuclear particle accelerator. Conway is capable of not only arguing that day is night and black is white, but with her Cruella De Vil sneering contempt, she conveys that the only reason you think day is day is because you are just another prisoner of left wing propaganda. Most people, she assures you, agree with President Trump, who believes it is night. Next question.

But last week, even Conway couldn’t keep things straight in the White House mall of mirrors. At the outset, Comey was fired only because Trump was acquiescing to the opinions offered by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.  Do read Rosenstein’s letter: it is an excellent articulation of how Comey exercised appalling judgment in his public handling of the Clinton email investigation.

At a superficial level (that is, normative cruising altitude for this president), Rosenstein’s letter could be seen as a masterstroke: how could Democrats object to firing Comey if the rationale was something the Democrats themselves passionately believed?

Unfortunately for the President, once this rationale was exposed to the dense atmosphere of objective scrutiny that lies beyond the logic vacuum inside the Trump bubble, it appeared to be little more than covering a turd with a Kleenex and believing no one would smell it.

For starters, no sentient being in this solar system was going to believe that Donald Trump fired James Comey because his actions had a negative impact on Hillary Clinton.  On the campaign trail, Trump was mad that Comey hadn’t indicted Clinton as he bathed in the reflected glow of entire stadiums chanting “lock her up.”  Yet with Rosenstein’s epistle we were asked to believe that Comey’s treatment of Clinton was so unfair that it should be the sole reason for his dismissal.

Most press accounts focused on the seismic implausibility of this rationale as the main story.  No one seemed to point out the far more striking problem baked into the Rosenstein letter, which was that it appeared to be a full-on endorsement for one of the two arguments that Trump’s opponents offer for asserting that Trump’s election was tainted.  Nothing makes Trump angrier than press stories that question the legitimacy of his election… and yet in this instance, Trump had Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein release a letter that effectively promoted the theory that Comey had inappropriately tried to sway the election toward Trump. Somehow nobody at the White House could see this profoundly self-defeating logic. 

Of course, the President himself punctured his own particular hot air balloon in the actual termination letter to Comey, in which he took a contortionist’s twist to mention that Comey had supposedly told Trump “three times” that the President was not the subject of investigation.  Thou doth protest not merely too much, Mr. President, but in ridiculous excess.

The tissue-paper thin rationale for firing Comey was ripped to shreds by reporters, Democrats, and even the first crocuses of Republican outrage.  There is a word that is to Republicans what Voldemort is to Harry Potter: “Nixonian.” The firing triggered a gusher of comparisons with Nixon’s Constitution-curdling “Saturday Night Massacre,” as in both cases, a sitting president ordered the firing of an individual who was currently conducting an investigation into possible impeachable offenses by the President.  By the time the prime time news shows aired, the Rosenstein letter was a punchline and pundits were in a fever of speculation that Comey’s Russian investigation must be closing in on Trump. There was no other possible explanation for the firing.

No dosage of Kellyanne Conway was powerful enough this time. In clinging to the Rosenstein version of the rationale, his surrogates were simply actively fanning the flames of public incredulity. So Trump stepped in and offered an entirely different explanation, undercutting and humiliating his press people – and even the administration’s ranking spin doctor, V.P. Mike Pence. Trump, who demands absolute and unflinching loyalty from his staffers, was now flinging his people under so many buses that you’d have thought he was standing outside the Port Authority.

Changing the story on the rationale for the Comey firing may well prove to be a far more significant blow to Trump than the myriad of criticisms that dogged his first hundred days in office, which could be generally categorized into legislative failure, operational ineptitude, and diplomatic tone-deafness.  In the Comey firing, however, Donald Trump violated one of the defining elements of his campaign brand: a supposed willingness to “tell it like it is” and a loathing for posturing and “political correctness.” When a guy who promises to tell it like it is suddenly starts telling it like it is not, he is taking a sledge hammer to his own brand. He is betraying the brand promise he made to his most ardent supporters. He looks exactly like the people in the swamp that he promised to clear.

However, the changing story adds fissionable nuclear fuel to the speculation that Donald Trump was deeply Comey-phobic: he was terrified that Comey’s investigation was beginning to gather powerful momentum and may have already been close to revealing smoking guns. By handling the Comey firing in this flagrantly disingenuous way, he let the world know that he was fearful of what the FBI would find out.  He created added new support to those in Congress demanding a special prosecutor. Most significantly, be put the Russia collusion investigation back on the nation’s front burner.

By Friday, Trump had gone full-Nixon, appearing to threaten Comey with the existence of a taping system in the Oval Office.  Good news: this time we won’t need an Alexander Butterfield to reveal the existence of the damming evidence that can bring a President down.

All in all, it was a pretty terrible week for Trump and for his White House staff.  But it was actually a far worse week for the United States of America.

This specific incident pointed to a far more grave concern.  

In his treatment of Comey, we learned the chilling reality of exactly how Donald Trump intends to deal with persons who he perceives to be a personal threat.

This president did not simply have an issue with James Comey, he suffers from a broader disorder. Let’s call if “Comey Phobia” in honor of its most obvious victim.  “Comey Phobia” is being terrified of people whom he perceives as threats to his office and his legitimacy. To be “Comey Phobic” means that Trump will attempt to stretch his executive powers to deal with threats and individuals who challenge his authority and who threaten his presidency. The firing of Comey may simply have been a first test of what he can get away with.

Make no mistake: Donald Trump had the right and the authority to fire the director of the FBI.  But many Americans may be learning the hard way that there is a difference between that which is law and that which has been merely time-honored custom.  Before last week, the only time a President had fired a Director of the FBI was when Bill Clinton removed William A. Sessions, who had been proven to have serially abused his position for personal gain. The custom had been to never remove the FBI Director, largely out of concern that it would be perceived as a partisan act. Donald Trump, in his seedy, shifting rationale, revealed that his purpose was partisan and even personal. He perceived James Comey’s investigation as a threat to his office, and so he got rid of the threat.

Is that an isolated act? Or are there other “Comeys” out there, threatening Trump, and inspiring him to further test the limits of his power to bring enemies down?

Here’s a very plausible example. Let’s say that Donald Trump continues to be agitated and angry that Stephen Colbert’s ratings soar to new heights as the late night comedian continues to increase the volume and bite of his relentless attacks on the President.  Perhaps the next time Colbert delivers a particularly savage monologue, this President decides that enough is enough. Citing whatever grounds he may invent, Donald Trump could push hard on the limits of his power by ordering that CBS’s FCC license be revoked unless they take Colbert off the air. Do you think that is alarmist?

Or just the next logical step?

There is a school of thought that democracies begin to erode due to a series of lesser compromises that demonstrate that the citizens are inattentive and cavalier about the strength of their government. The small abdications are then often followed by a sudden major event. Authoritarians invent justifications to seize additional power in small increments, and then may concoct an alleged threat to the sovereignty of the state as a rationale to seize power in martial law.

That is to say, authoritarian rulers have no problem inventing a bogus rationale in order to justify a grab for power. Thanks for your contribution to Trump’s cause, Mr. Rosenstein. Thus emboldened, authoritarians keep going, grabbing more and more power, if no one stops them.

Then, one day, they arrive at the point where no one can stop them. And that is how democracy dies.

It is time to consider the possibility that when Trump, the candidate, was constantly screaming about how “our government doesn’t work,” he may have been referring to the part that we generally call democracy.

Most Americans, it seems, do not appear to understand that democracies in other nations and at other times in history have indeed ceased to exist, and that authoritarian rulers have stolen democratic rights and principles away from their citizenry.  Many Americans seem to particularly reject the possibility that it actually could happen here.  

Most seem to view the threat posed by Donald Trump as a distant abstraction, and view those who warn about that threat to be shrill alarmists who scare too easily.

It is time to begin seriously reflecting on what is at stake.  This time, Trump has fired the head of the FBI, solely because he represents a direct threat to Trump.

Tomorrow, Trump’s target could be Stephen Colbert. It also could be Politico, CNN, or The New York Times.  Adam Schiff. Chuck Schumer. Corey Booker.  The list goes on and on.

All for the exact same reason.

And the day after that, his target could well be democracy itself.

For the exact same reason.

It is time to get serious about just how vulnerable a democracy is if left undefended by the citizens it represents.  It is time to report for duty. 

Stop pretending that it couldn’t happen here. It’s happening right this minute.



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Monday, May 8, 2017

Republicans Take the Hypocritical Oath on Healthcare

When out of power, Republicans were the “Party of No.” Now that they hold power, they have simply become the “Party of Undo.”  Here is Steve’s take on Republican healthcare… and governing philosophy.

When historians look to mark the day that everything went off the rails in the United States of America, a very reasonable pick is October 23, 2010. That was the day that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in an interview that The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

There is no record of McConnell hastening to qualify this statement by noting that “of course I meant to say that this objective comes after ensuring the defense and safety of our nation, serving the needs of my constituency, and supporting and defending the Constitution, as I swore to do when I took the oath of office of the United States Senate.” No, job #1 for the Senator from Tennessee was to focus every fiber of his being on obstructing, fighting, and undermining the freely elected leader of his own country.

McConnell was true to his word, leading his party on a kamikaze raid on the Obama White House, triggering the mutually assured destruction of the daily civility, bipartisan cooperation, tough but open-minded negotiation, and endless horse trading that had miraculously enabled Congress to function more or less as the founding fathers had intended for more than 200 years. McConnell’s philosophy metastasized and became Patient Zero in the death spiral of dysfunction that gridlocks our government today.  In his signature act, McConnell was able to deny a sitting president his right to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court with a brazen middle-finger salute to the obvious intent of the framers of the Constitution.

It was Mitch McConnell who mainstreamed the notion that being a Republican was more important than being an American, and who turned us from a nation of patriots into a nation of partisans.

In what must be considered plutonium-grade irony, the electile dysfunction in Washington, D.C. borne of McConnell’s mission of obstruction caused many Americans to lose patience with government, enabling Donald Trump to storm to the presidency by railing against the ineffectiveness, inaction, and swamp of self-interest in Washington, D.C.  That is to say: the Republican candidate for president campaigned directly against the Republican Party philosophy as articulated by one Mitch McConnell.

Of course, Mitch McConnell did not succeed in achieving the central organizing mission of his life’s work. Barack Obama won a second term, and, indeed, emerged at the end of his eight years in office as one of the most popular presidents in decades.

But the metastasized cancer of McConnell’s core objective did not wither and die as Obama prevailed and served successfully. Rather, cancers lie hidden and dormant as they tinker with mutations that enable them to roar back with murderous rage. When McConnell failed to terminate Barack Obama’s full terms in office, the cancer mutated and took on a different objective: to obliterate, after the fact, each and every accomplishment of the Obama administration.

This, in good measure, explains the unending and relentless assault that the Republican Party has mounted in order to be able to claim that it has delivered on its promise to “repeal and replace ObamaCare.”

Last week, a confluence of forces – Donald Trump’s increasingly desperate need for a single legislative triumph, the Republican Party’s desperate need to claim fulfillment of at least one campaign promise, Paul Ryan’s desperate need to restore his credibility as House Speaker, and the Republican Party’s need to eradicate the Obama legacy, came together to produce a Rube Goldberg construct that barely passed in the House of Representatives. The bill remains so flawed that there is talk of simply having the Senate rip it up and start over. ObamaCare is still the law of the land, and there are many hurdles ahead before the Republicans can achieve their goal. But to a party and a president consumed with optics, sound-bytes, and symbolism, the mere passage of the bill in the House was ample reason to celebrate.

The reason the bill is such a monstrosity is that it was conceived with no specific objective other than to enable Republicans to claim that they repealed Obamacare. In practical terms, this meant that this was no criteria for success other than passage in the U.S. House. The Republican goal was not to create something that was better than ObamaCare, it was to create something that could pass in the House of Representatives.

The reason it took three tries to even meet that standard is that Republicans themselves were in split in diametrically opposite positions about Obamacare. The right-wing Freedom Caucus essentially views any form of state-sponsored guaranteed health coverage as creeping socialism and wants to take the federal government out of regulating healthcare to the full extent possible. Centrist Republicans in heavily contested congressional districts could clearly see – in countless town hall meetings -- that their constituents found certain aspects of ObamaCare to be very compelling.  The most popular components of ObamaCare were the right to keep children up to age 26 on the parent’s plan, and the language preventing insurance companies from either charging exorbitant premiums to persons with “pre-existing conditions,” or denying coverage entirely. 

Using the criteria of “what can pass?” rather than “what is good?” the Republicans threaded the philosophical needle by abdicating, foisting off the question of whether insurance companies must offer insurance to people with pre-existing conditions to the individual states. The states, in turn, would have the option to allow insurance companies to charge exorbitant premiums, which is exactly where the hypocrisy hits the fan. The state can “require” an insurance company to offer insurance to all persons with pre-existing conditions, but the insurance company can determine the cost. If a cancer patient has to pay $150,000 for health insurance, then it is a sham to pretend that the ObamaCare requirement has been preserved.

This solution provided just enough of a coating over the bullshit to enable both wings of the party to go back to their constituents and say that the new health plan meets all of their requirements. More important, it allowed everyone to say that they had met their promise of voting to repeal ObamaCare.

What lies ahead is the matter of what bill – if any – ultimately emerges from the Senate.

In the short term, Republicans could all claim a desperately needed victory, the photo op, and the pretension of a George Dubya caliber “mission accomplished.” Paul Ryan was no longer flat-lining, Donald Trump’s presidency was temporarily out of the ICU, and Republican Representatives in the House of Representatives could pretend that they had provided their constituents with some vestige of healthcare that barely clears a bar of human decency. 

Sure, if this bill were ever to become law, it would cost poor people more, be more expensive for older people than younger people, result in millions of people losing insurance coverage, and -- because of the failure to provide guaranteed coverage for pre-existing conditions --  those most at risk will be in the most peril of being abandoned. Taxes on the super-rich will be reduced. Once again, the very people who voted Trump into the White House will be sucker-punched.

But hey, the Republicans can say that they actually succeeded in a vote to repeal and replace ObamaCare,so they are content that they have achieved their only real objective.

What might be of interest to Republicans is to look at healthcare from a different point of view, a perspective that is not informed solely and wholly by Mitch McConnell’s singular life goal of eradicating the legacy of Barack Obama.

Perhaps Republicans could look at health care from the perspective of those who provide it.

Interestingly, doctors are also administered an “oath of office." The difference is that doctors, unlike our politicians, actually read the words and take their oath seriously. Most people think that the Hippocratic Oath is centered on the idea of “do no harm.” In fact, those words do not appear at any point in the text.

What does appear, however, are these vows:

I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person's family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.

Yes, doctors are bound to reflect on the humanity of the persons they treat, the potential economic burden of their care, and to be vigilant about how that treatment affects the patient’s life and the lives of all those he or she holds dear. Wouldn’t it be something if our Republican representatives held themselves to such a standard? If they arrived at their decisions based on the impact on the constituents rather than on the donations of those who fund their re-election campaigns?

Our Republican members of Congress might be wise to reflect on the vows that physicians make, as well as on the oath that they themselves took upon taking office.

If their only goal in life is destroy the opposition party, they have lost sight of their vow to protect and defend the Constitution.

They are not serving their constituents if they are content to draft weasel language that protects their own jobs at the expense of the health of the people they serve.

The only creed that they are living by is the natural extension of the oath first uttered by Mitch McDonnell: The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” When out of power, the Republican Party became “the Party of No.” Now that the Republicans have a hold on every branch of government, they have simply become “the Party of Undo.”

We still have little idea of what Republicans actually seek to achieve, only what they seek to destroy.

And their oath of fealty to McConnell’s  commitment stands in precise and direct opposition to the very oath they took when they entered Congress.

Leave it to this Republican administration of fake news, lies, deception, and distraction to try to solve healthcare with a hypocritical oath.


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Monday, May 1, 2017

BTRTN April 2017 Month in Review: 100 Excruciating Days for America

Our April Month in Review coincides with the 100-day mark of the Trump Administration, a much ballyhooed signpost of progress dating from the days of FDR.  Trump took great pains to diminish the importance of the milestone, which is reliable evidence that he actually knows things have not gone well for him thus far.  Simultaneously, and in nearly the same breath, he maniacally lobbed potential accomplishments against the proverbial wall as the 100 days counted down in the hope that something might stick.  Nothing did, unless you call backing down on your demands to avoid a government shutdown a “win.”

We will start with the numbers, shift to the big April news, and then reflect on the 100 days and where the Trump Administration goes from here.

THE NUMBERS

The most holy number in presidential politics, apart from Election Day results, is the approval rating.  Apart from being a daily scorecard on presidential performance by the American public, the approval rating is an indicator of the staying power of a president, his party and his policies.

Let’s start with this packed chart of approval ratings of recent presidents at key first-term milestones:

GALLUP APPROVAL RATING AT KEY 1ST TERM MILESTONES
First-term   President
Inaug. Day
100 Days (April 30)
Chng Vs Inaug.
Just Before Mid-Terms
Mid-Term House Change
Before 2nd Term Election Day
Trump
45%
42%
-7%
tbd
tbd
tbd
Obama
68%
65%
-4%
45%
-63
50%
Bush
57%
53%
-7%
63%
+8
48%
Clinton
58%
52%
-10%
46%
-54
54%

There are a number of takeaways from this chart.  Each of Trump’s immediate predecessors – Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama -- were reelected despite significant declines in their approval ratings from their Inaugural to Election Day four years hence.  And they won despite having approval ratings that were at the 50% mark, give or take. 

But each of the three started with a broad base of support, well over 50%, much higher than the percentage of people that voted for them, in part because they spent their transition periods “healing” the wounds of the electorate.  Trump did not do that and he did not see that increase, and in fact he started his presidency with an approval rating just below his popular vote percentage.  Clearly he made no effort to expand his support from beyond his base.  While his predecessors lost some of that new president sheen in time, each of Obama, Bush and Clinton held onto enough support to ensure reelection.  Whereas Donald Trump must actually win over people who have, essentially, never approved of him.

And after 100 days he has utterly failed in that quest.  His approval rating has dropped to 42%, and his disapproval rating (not shown) has risen from 43% to 52%.  He has won over no one, and lost more than a few.  After 100 days he remains 10-20 approval points lower than his predecessors, and this after a frenzy of activity that resulted in very little. 

Now let’s look at the midterm numbers.  The correlation is pretty clear.  Obama and Clinton were both in trouble by the midterms, clearly below 50% in approval, and each was clobbered at the polls in midterm elections viewed as referendums on them, each losing over 50 House seats and control of the House.  Bush, on the other hand, buoyed by his initial responses to 9/11, before the bloom was off the Iraq War rose, still enjoyed high approval ratings (63%) and this translated into midterm gains in the House (+8), which is practically unheard of for first-term presidents.

With his approval rating down to 42%, Trump is hardly out of the game.  But he is under water – his net negative after 100 days is unprecedented in the last 70 years (as was his <50% rating at this inaugural).  These 100 Days have been agonizing for all.  His opponents, while energized in opposition to him and heartened by his failure, have nonetheless had to endure his ascendency, his goals and his incompetence.  And his supporters, while sticking with him thus far, have clearly noticed that he has not taken Washington by storm.

Whatever one feels he has accomplished in this “honeymoon” period – and we will get to this – he has not made any progress in winning over the American people, and he has lost some.  And he has left himself in a position where breakthrough progress before the midterms will be exceedingly difficult, his hand filled with losing propositions and no-win situations, and the only decisions he can make are of the “best from a bad set of options” variety.

MONTH OF APRIL

After the March health care debacle, with April came an opportunity for Donald Trump, at least sort of.  Just when he needed a crisis overseas most to deflect attention from the TrumpCare disaster, both the Syrians and the North Koreans complied, the former by unleashing chemicals weapons on its own people, and the latter with escalating efforts at creating an intercontinental nuclear capability.

If ever one needed a tidy metaphor for the Trump response to these crises, or his “foreign policy” in general, look no further than the USS Carl Vinson, which appeared to be headed one way and was found to be going another.  With head-spinning flexibility that an owl would envy, the Trump Doctrine of “America First” was promptly shed in the face of Actual Events.  Far from embracing his campaign promise of a lesser global role for the USA, as he instead focused on the homeland, Trump – based apparently on an emotional reaction to pictures of dying, gassed children – lobbed a bunch of Tomahawks at a Syrian airstrip (much to the chagrin of the Ann Coulter’s of this world), dropped the Mother of All Bombs on ISIS rebels (his generals acting on their Trump-given autonomy), ratcheted up the tension level around North Korea and sent the Carl Vinson on its wayward journey.  So much for MAGA.

None of this seems to have made much of a difference.  Assad still does what he wants, ISIS is far from defeated, the Chinese are still reluctant to impose their economic will over North Korea and Kim Jong-Un keeps flinging test missiles into the Sea of Japan.  Trump recovered a few points in his dismal approval ratings by virtue of his so-called “show of strength” and the world wondered what would be the outcome of this existential version of “Mad Men” (a better title might be “The Real Mad Men of Planet Earth.”)

Along the way Trump abandoned his view of China as a currency manipulator, learned the hard way that Vladimir Putin cannot be “re-set,” that NATO was no longer obsolete, that the Export-Import Bank was a good thing, that NAFTA should not be cancelled, and on and on.  Upon meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss, among other things, North Korea, he admitted that “after listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” echoing his epically naïve conclusion a month before that “nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”  Did he really think the world was so simple, that everyone was really so dumb as to ignore obvious solutions, that only he held the magic key to problems that had vexed heads of states for decades? 

April offered Trump one clear win – the appointment and Senate approval of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, though this came at the expense of the Senate As We Know It.  With only 50 votes now required to ratify justices to SCOTUS, we now have the formalization of the Era of Extremists Justices, in which justices will only be added when the President in power has 50 Senate votes as well.  And then that President will be free to add only latter day Scalia’s and Brennan’s, officially turning the courts into political parties who will ignore stare decisis and follow their own version of the Constitution.  Even “swing vote” justices like Anthony Kennedy (and before him, Sandra Day O’Connor) will disappear.

Apart from the Gorsuch win, Trump endured another mindnumbing set of humiliations in April, including:

·         Two much closer than expected House special elections to replace Trump-appointed Cabinet members, in safe GOP districts in Kansas and Georgia, one of which, Georgia’s 6th, resulted in a runoff and a potential flip in June.

·         Another failed Obamacare “Repeal and Replace” effort, in which the GOP developed a more conservative bill to win over the Freedom Caucus, only to discover that GOP moderate were even more unhappy than before (surprise!) – and thus once again realizing there was no point is holding a doomed vote

·         Tax reform got off to a difficult start, as Trump rashly decided to announce his own “plan” at the exact time his GOP colleagues were trying to avoid a government shutdown and muster votes together on the TrumpCare bill (on Day 97).  The resulting set of bullet points, which essentially would result in an income transfer from the IRS to Really Rich People to the tune of trillions, was widely panned by both parties

·         A shutdown was averted, mainly because Trump was forced to blink on securing funds for The Wall, and denying funds for Obamacare insurees, totally avoidable battles that Trump unwisely and futily joined in his quest for 100-Day “accomplishments.”

·         And, oh yes, the Russia investigation got ever closer to paydirt (a.k.a., a ”smoking gun”) with the unearthing of further insidious behavior by one Carter Page and the cesspool known as Michael Flynn, who, along with Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, may go down in history alongside E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy, H.R. Haldeman, John Mitchell and Charles Colson (among others) as the men who brought down a presidency from within.

·         And finally, on the immigration front, yet another federal judge stymied Trump by overturning his attempt to deny funds to so-called sanctuary cities, and the travel bans remained on the shelf.

·         Did I forget to add that Bill O’Reilly followed Roger Ailes to ignominy, and FOX News – the most influential pro-Trump voice in the land – is in free fall? 

And, remarkably enough, April was a better month for Trump than March!

As if that was not all bad enough, The Trumpometer took a tumble from +3 to -11, driven by the news of a tepid Q1 GDP of 0.7%.  Trump cannot be blamed for the state of the Q1 economy, though he has claimed full credit for the post-election surge in the Dow, the declining unemployment rate and rising consumer confidence.  There is no partial ownership in this game.  We are officially in worse economic shape (if modestly) than we were on Inauguration Day, and it is on Trump to improve it.

"Clinton-ometer"        1/20/2001
"Bush-      ometer"        1/20/2009
"Obameter"      1/20/2017
"Trump-ometer" 3/31/2017
"Trump-ometer" 3/31/2017

25
-53
0
+3
-11
  Unemployment Rate
4.2
7.8
4.7
4.7
4.5
  Consumer Confidence
129
38
114
126
120
  Price of Gas
1.27
1.84
2.44
2.43
2.56
  Dow Jones
10,588
8,281
19,732
20,663
20,941
  GDP
4.5
-6.2
2.1
2.1
0.7


100 Days and Beyond

Donald Trump can point to three accomplishments in his first 100 days:  the appointment of Gorsuch, bowing out of the TPP trade deal, and rolling back Obama’s environmental Executive Orders with a stroke of his own pen.

Each “win” is qualified in some way:  the Senate had to use the nuclear option to push Gorsuch through, which will make it, as noted, nearly impossible to appoint moderate judges in the future; with respect to trade, he has yet to “cancel” NAFTA and instead will try to renegotiate it; and, in a similar vein, he has not followed through on a campus promise to withdraw (somehow) from the Paris Accords.  Thus, in terms of his campaign promises, these are all modified wins.

Do we really need to reprise the many failures along the way?  Trump’s 100 Days stand as a blueprint for squandered opportunities, amateurish handling of newly-won power, and appealing to the base rather than making any attempt to unify a nation.  When times are tough for Donald Trump, his instinct is to head for the road, reprise his campaign speech, recall Election Day glory, bask in the love of the undisappointable and pretend that words speak louder than inaction.  Maybe the base will tire of this, but as of now, they are still eating up the whole rancid stew.

But no one else is.  And that does indeed matter.  Presidential lack of accomplishment is merciless.  Even with the Camp David Accords, Jimmy Carter failed in his reelection attempt.  Even with the wildly successful Gulf War, George H.W. Bush failed to win a second term as well.  Donald Trump needs a major win in the worst way, but thus far, his way (which is indeed, the worst way) has resulted in a string of embarrassing failures.  Topping the list are the whiffs on repealing and replacing Obamacare (twice) and his utter failure on immigration, with the series of judicial denials of successive travel bans and sanctuary city defunding.

Where does the Trump presidency go from here?

The presidential playbook calls for adjustment.  Learn from your mistakes.  Reagan learned how to orchestrate legislative deals by working with Tip O’Neill.  Clinton recognized the need for more discipline within his White House and jettisoned Chief of Staff (and childhood friend) Mack McLarty for old hand Leon Panetta.  Presidencies do wax and wane, and bad starts do not doom a presidency.  Trump is not a failure – yet.  But he has to demonstrate some ability to grow within the job (not the same as simply flipping positions) and figure out how to accomplish things, and his nearing-the-end-of-the-100-Days frenzy demonstrated conclusively that he has learned nothing to date.  The “tax plan” was, in fact, embarrassing, and more evidence that he has no capacity to change and grow.

From a legislative standpoint, Trump essentially must place all of his chips on tax reform, bad start or not.  This will be a long, complex process, with many competing forces at work within the Republican Party (as with health care).  He must also avoid a plan that requires 60 votes, and that is no mean feat, since he was denied the tax cut that replacing Obamacare would have brought.  That makes it harder for the tax legislation to be eligible for reconciliation (and thus only 50 votes).

Another tack would be to drop the Freedom Caucus and pursue bi-partisan legislative victories, perhaps by revising Obamacare or creating an infrastructure bill (one that actually spends money as opposed to providing tax credits).  But this would certainly risk infuriating the base with no guarantee of winning anyone over from the middle.

Or he could hope for an overseas crisis that he can win, a la Bush.  Bush 41 masterfully executed the Gulf War which was a huge boon to his presidency, albeit one that he could not sustain through a souring economy (and his out of touch responses to it).  Bush 43 responded well to 9/11 and was given the highest approval rating ever for his initial efforts, but his ill-fated pivot to Iraq and WMD almost lost him his second term and certainly consigned his presidency to the scrap heap.  Foreign crises are opportunities, to be sure, but as Bush 43 and Jimmy Carter can certainly testify, they are full of risk as well.  Cool, experienced heads – Eisenhower, Kennedy, the strategic side of Nixon, Bush 41 – tend to prevail.  Inexperience tempered by sheer intelligence and sound advice – Clinton and Obama – can prevent disasters and hold alliances together.  But unchecked inexperience – the messianic George W. Bush as Exhibit A – is disastrous.  Which model do you think Trump most resembles?

The shot across the bow for the Trump presidency, however, was the Q1 GDP report of only 0.7% growth.  While the job market remains strong, if it too softens, Trump will be totally on the hook to improve the economic fortunes of the country, his supposed wheelhouse.  He cannot preside over a worsening economy and win re-election.  The slowing GDP can give him ammunition in his tax “reform” efforts, but failure to stimulate the economy and a worsening economy would truly expose him as a fraud.

The Trump presidency must also navigate the infighting of his own top aides, the lack of a clear chief of staff to provide order, the ongoing Twitter madness, the make-it-up-as-you-go-along decision making style, the ongoing Russia investigation, murky conflicts of interest, the insanity of the “let’s give it to Jared” approach to every thorny issue, the reemergence of his failure to release his own income taxes in the context of his tax plan, and countless other self-inflicted obstacles to its own success.   His presidency could hinge, fundamentally, on whether he can impose any discipline or order at all on his own shop.  And since he is the least disciplined member of his team, that seems to be a tall order.

It doesn’t look good for Trump from here, as we count down to the mid-terms.