Jul. 27

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Senate Votes Down a Repeal-Only Bill

As predicted by many observers, yesterday the Senate voted down a bill to repeal the ACA without replacing it for 2 years. The bill got only 45 of the 50 votes need to pass. All 48 Democrats and independents voted no, along with seven Republicans. The Republicans were Sens. Alexander (TN), Capito (WV), Collins (ME), Heller (NV), McCain (AZ), Murkowski (AK), and Portman (OH).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) doesn't have any aces up his sleeve, so he's going to have to give it a shot with a pair of a fives. His next move will probably be to bring a "skinny replacement" to the floor. This bill will repeal the ACA's mandates and one of the taxes. Almost all Republicans can agree to this. Of course, if this were the final bill, it would be a massive defeat for the party. But the intention is once both the House and Senate have passed bills, no matter how different, the two bills would be sent to a conference committee to work on the differences (English translation: write a new bill). Most likely the new bill will look a lot like the House's AHCA bill that could never pass the Senate. Once the bill has been hammered out, McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) will hold guns to the heads of their respective caucuses and say: "It's this or Obamacare. Your call." If the bill is close enough to the AHCA, Ryan may be able to strongarm it through the House (again). The Senate will be tough since Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski are almost certainly "no" votes and McConnell can afford just one more defection. It will be a very tough call for Dean Heller. If he votes no and ends the dream of killing Obamacare, the president will be fit to be tied and the Republican leadership will be beyond furious with him. If he votes yes, come January 2019, he will probably be a former senator.

John McCain is another problem. He really has no business being at work right now, and has already made clear that he will soon return to Arizona to resume his recuperation from brain surgery. He delivered an address from the Senate floor on Wednesday in which he expressed his irritation with the whole process, and the lack of progress being made. There's no guarantee that McConnell has McCain's vote any more, nor that he can expect the Arizona Senator to ride to the rescue again if the deliberations spill into, say, late next week.

Not helping matters on the "skinny bill" front is that the CBO has released its score of the measure, and concluded that it will result in 16 million people losing insurance coverage, while premiums will rise by 20%. Actually, the CBO didn't score the bill, per se, because McConnell hasn't actually produced a bill for anyone to read; they are just estimating based on what is reportedly in the bill. One wonders when the Majority Leader will actually produce a document for examination, and where he's keeping it hidden in the interim. (V)

Trump Bans Transgender People from the Military for Partisan Reasons

During the election campaign, Donald Trump was asked which bathroom a transgender woman could use if she came to Trump Tower. His reply was any one she wanted to use. During the campaign, he exhibited little interest in transgender issues and has rarely, if ever, shown any hostility to transgender people. As a consequence, the only way to view his decision on Wednesday to ban transgender people from serving in the military is as an attempt to toss some red meat to his base, especially in the Midwest. In particular, his reasoning (or more likely that of his strategist Steve Bannon) is to force Democrats to defend the rights of transgender people so Republicans can attack them for it in 2018.

Obviously it is a big gamble to think that transgender rights, which are a big deal today, and possibly tomorrow (depending on what the Senate does on health care), will somehow dominate the 2018 elections. It's also possible that Democrats will try to finesse the issue by saying it should be up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff to determine what works best for the military, not the politicians.

Looking at this matter more closely, whenever Trump is in trouble on some front—Russiagate being the current and likely future one—he looks for a distraction. Restarting the culture wars is a tried-and-true method to get his base to forget the current unpleasant news and focus on something on which many of them agree with Trump.

That said, Trump may score even fewer brownie points than he expects, because his announcement was met with fierce criticism—from Republicans. Some—including, apparently, Secretary of Defense James Mattis—are aggravated that Trump went off half-cocked, and didn't even bother to tell the Pentagon before making his announcement. Others—like Rep. Tom Rooney (R-FL)—are irritated that the President went too far, and insist that they wanted only for the military to refuse to pay for gender reassignment surgery. Rooney also worries that the move will make the GOP look like it can't accomplish anything beyond scapegoating vulnerable minority groups. Still other Republicans denounced Trump's move as discriminatory, with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL)—hardly a bleeding-heart liberal—opining that, "You ought to treat everybody fairly and give everybody a chance to serve." There were also Republicans—including John McCain—who criticized Trump for not having an actual plan in place. They wonder what he is going to do about those transgender individuals who are already serving, or how exactly he intends to identify who is and is not transgender. Finally, Republican and transgender former Navy SEAL Kristin Beck blasted the president for his verbiage, declaring "Let's meet face to face and you tell me I'm not worthy." So, this one does not look like it will be much of a "WIN" for the President. Sad! (V & Z)

Trump Attacks Sessions for the Third Consecutive Day

For the third day in a row, Donald Trump has hit Attorney General Jeff Sessions, this time over his decision (so far) not to replace Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, a 31-year FBI veteran. Trump's complaint is that McCabe's wife, Jill McCabe, ran for the Virginia state senate in 2015 as a Democrat and like most Virginia Democrats, received some funding from the state Democratic Party. At the time of his wife's race, McCabe was not acting FBI director, but was in a field office working on counterterrorism.

Implicit in Trump's tweets is that all senior Justice Dept. officials should be Republicans. Clearly he does not understand (or want to understand) that the Justice Dept. is inherently different from other departments. A president is entitled to order the secretary of agriculture to carry out his policies with respect to, say, soybean exports, but he is not supposed to apply political tests to Justice Dept. officials. In that context, it is noteworthy that when Barack Obama took office, he asked (now special counsel) Robert Mueller to continue to run the FBI, even though Mueller was a registered Republican. The administration of justice is not supposed to be partisan.

Given that Trump has gone after Sessions three days in a row now, it seems clear that he wants Sessions to resign. Although Trump was famous for firing people in his TV show, in real life he hates to confront people and fire them personally. If he were to fire Sessions outright, it would create a firestorm and it would be difficult to get a successor confirmed by the Senate, in no small part because Sessions is well liked by Republican senators, who would be angered by his firing.

Sessions is digging in and doesn't appear to be about to resign. In a move designed exclusively to curry favor with his boss, Sessions is apparently planning to start investigating leaks in the White House next week. This is something Trump has attacked him for not doing, so by doing so, it reduces his exposure to broadsides from the president a bit. It isn't known how he will do this, since leakers are unlikely to admit it to him. Possibly he is planning to make everyone in the White House except people at the very top take lie detector tests. Ironically, Trump seems to have multiple views on the Justice Dept. investigating his own White House. When Robert Mueller is doing the investigating, it is bad, but when Jeff Sessions is doing it, it is good.

As the AG is investigating the leaks, one wonders how much energy he will expend going after the leakers who talked to the Washington Post on Wednesday. They confirmed that Trump is indeed giving serious consideration to firing Sessions if he does not take the hint and resign, and then replacing him via a recess appointment. Assuming that really is the President's plan, and all evidence points to that conclusion, he's got another think coming. The Democrats have already made clear that they will use parliamentary trickery to keep the Senate from going into recess in August. And Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) fired a clear warning shot across the bow via Twitter, announcing: "Everybody in D.C. Shld b warned that the agenda for the judiciary Comm is set for rest of 2017. Judges first subcabinet 2nd / AG no way." Translation: "If you try to send us a new AG, he's going to twist in the wind until 2018." In short, there appears to be only one person in Washington who does not understand that throwing Sessions overboard is a non-starter. We shall see if that one finally gets the message. (V)

Breitbart Defends Sessions

Donald Trump's attacks on Jeff Sessions come with a cost. Now Breitbart News, hardly a Democratic outlet, is defending Sessions and criticizing Trump. It is especially unhappy with Trump's comment that Sessions' early support for him was no big deal. According to Breitbart, it was enormously risky for Sessions to be the first senator to support Trump at a time that the powers that be in the Republican Party were supporting one of the (former) governors or senators in the race and saw Trump as an unwelcome outsider who was neither a conservative nor a Republican. If Trump had lost, it would have been curtains for Sessions, who risked everything backing Trump. Now Trump sees him as a piece of dirt that needs to be gotten rid of as fast as possible. Breitbart says that if Trump fires Sessions, "it could mean a bloody mess of a nightmare in the conservative media and among Trump's base." This is not the kind of story Trump wants in a media outlet that is largely in sync with his base.

Breitbart isn't Sessions' only supporter. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also defended Sessions. So did Tucker Carlson. Gingrich doesn't have much of a platform to defend Sessions, but Carlson, a Fox News host, has a big one.

Breitbart is also not the only Trump-friendly outlet that's growing more hostile. Matt Drudge, publisher of the Drudge Report, had some hand in the President's political ascent, and has been a frequent visitor to the Trump White House. However, he is none-too-thrilled about the Sessions affair, and is also apparently miffed about the administration's obfuscation and general lack of progress. Further, Drudge is not so much a conservative as much as he is a rabble-rouser and a capitalist who values clicks and page views above all else. Consequently, the tone of Drudge Report has been getting harsher and much less Trump-friendly over the past week or so. If the President loses Drudge, that would be very bad, because Drudge has a direct line to the base, perhaps even more so than Fox News.

And finally, it should be noted that the Sessions affair has tied progressives in a knot. While they can't stomach the AG's conservative policies on civil rights, policing, and much more, some of them want him to stay because to them, his departure would signal the end of the rule of law and allow Trump to turn the Justice Dept. into a private police force to go after his enemies. Also, his successor would undoubtedly be asked to fire Robert Muller and would do so (think: Rudy Giuliani or Chris Christie). Other progressives want Sessions to go because they can't stand his policies. So just as the right is divided on Trump vs. Sessions, the left is also divided on Sessions vs. a new AG. (V)

Scaramucci Appears to Attack Priebus

Donald Trump is using Twitter to try to get Jeff Sessions to resign. It would seem that new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci is doing the same with Chief of Staff (and nemesis) Reince Priebus.

The source of the current intrigue is Scaramucci's financial disclosure form, which was published by Politico, and reveals that he—like so many Trump administration members—has all sorts of potential conflicts of interest. Scaramucci was infuriated by the report, and issued forth with this now-deleted tweet:

In light of the leak of my financial disclosure info which is a felony. I will be contacting @FBI and the @TheJusticeDept #swamp @Reince45.

Scaramucci does not seem to have a much better grasp of the law and/or of how Washington works than his boss; the disclosure document is now a public record, and so there may well have been no leak and no felony (Politico has not announced how it acquired the disclosure). In any case, the manner in which the tweet was constructed, with #swamp followed by Reince Priebus' Twitter handle, certainly seems to suggest that Scaramucci is blaming the Chief of Staff for the alleged leak. Both men have since made bland public statements insisting nothing is wrong and that there's no bad blood between them, but increasingly it's looking like this White House isn't going to be big enough for the both of them. And given that one of them is a longtime Trump loyalist and a shiny new toy while the other is not, well, Priebus should probably start getting his resume up to date. Or, maybe he could start working on his dance moves so he can join Sean Spicer on "Dancing with the Stars." (Z)

Russia Sanctions Bill Moves Forward

The Senate passed a bill putting new sanctions on Russia by a margin of 98 to 2. The House passed a sanctions bill on a vote of 419 to 3. Despite these overwhelming majorities, however, there was some question as to when and if the measure would move forward, due to disagreements between the senators and the representatives over the sanctioning of North Korea. More specifically, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker (R-TN) insisted that Congress have the final word on lifting the sanctions on North Korea, just as will be the case with the sanctions on Russia. He was threatening to dig in, as was House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), a battle of wills that threatened to scuttle the measure. Late Wednesday, however, the two chambers worked out their difference (Corker lost, but may get what he wants in the future). Now, the bill is headed to the President for his signature.

The White House doesn't have a clear position on the bill yet. Should the President sign a measure he bitterly hates (because it strips him of his authority to lift sanctions on his own) and declare "victory"? Or should be stick to his guns, veto it, and have Congress override his veto? The latter would be a very unwise choice, given how much pushback The Donald is already getting over Jeff Sessions, from both his colleagues and from the Trump-friendly media. However, as you may have heard, he occasionally allows his emotions to dictate what he does. We will find out what he decides sometime in the next 10 days. (V & Z)

What Is "Fake News," Exactly?

Gary Abernathy is the publisher and editor of the (Hillsboro, Ohio) Times-Gazette, so he presumably knows a little something about middle America. He's written an interesting Op-Ed for the Washington Post in which he juxtaposes the kinds of stories that he tends to cover—dollar store openings, school bus route changes, awards for 4-H competitions—with those covered by his big-city brethren, like Russiagate. Abernathy uses the comparison to make an argument about what Trump supporters mean by "fake news":

This is the America that Trump embraced. The media's Russia fixation may not be fake news in the way that Trump uses the phrase. But for millions of Americans, Trump's claim strikes a chord because the Russia hysteria is not real news, either, not compared with the issues that impact their daily lives.

In other words, "fake news" does not necessarily mean "false news," but instead, "news that isn't really relevant to us."

It's an interesting argument. In fact, it's really a variation on Tip O'Neill's old declaration that "All politics is local." However, we should also not take this too far. There are plenty of political issues that don't appear to have much impact on Main Street USA, and yet still seem to matter an awful lot in middle America. Transgender soldiers in the military, for example. Benghazi. Hillary Clinton's e-mail server. The Iran nuclear deal. In other words, Abernathy might be looking at things through glasses with a distinctly rose-colored tint, and is almost certainly overstating the extent to which his fellow rural Americans are just regular folks—aw, shucks—who care mostly about home and hearth. As to Tip O'Neill, he might have been right in 1980, but in Donald Trump's America, it's probably much more correct to say that "All politics is tribal." (Z)


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