Fair and Unbalanced
At first blush, it may look as if Donald Trump has finally gone the full Nixon. But if there’s one thing we can safely take away from Trump’s tweeted threat that he has taped White House conversations, it’s that he doesn’t understand Watergate any more than he understands anything else.
Nixon didn’t threaten to release tapes in order to silence anyone. It would be wrong, that’s for sure. What Nixon did, what the Saturday Night Massacre was all about, was to try desperately to hold on to those previously secret but always incriminating tapes that led, eventually, to Nixon’s resignation.
Trump must have his ’70s iconography confused. Trump’s tweet — “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” — is more Godfather than Watergate. What Comey should worry about it is not a recording system in the White House, but finding a horse’s head in his bed.
Or as John Dean — yes, that John Dean — just tweeted: “Obviously, President Trump is confused. He is the one who must hope there are no tapes. Honest people don’t have problems being taped.”
I don’t believe Trump has “taped” Comey or anyone else any more than I believe Trump’s tweet that Obama had “wiretapped” Trump. It’s more Trumpian bluster, but, of course, it’s not only that.
Trump doesn’t think any more about publicly threatening Comey than he does in publicly firing Comey and in publicly lying about why he fired Comey and then, after sending out all his surrogates, including the vice-president, to lie about why he fired Comey, to admit the truth in an NBC News interview with Lester Holt. In one step, he threw all his communications people under the bus (or, in Spicey’s case, into the bushes) while, at the same time, making the case for why there must be an independent investigation into all things Russia and Trump.
No one paying any attention at all can be surprised that Trump lied about why he fired Comey. We knew from the start that it was never about Comey’s mistreatment of Hillary Clinton or about Rod Rosenstein’s craven memo. It was always about, as Trump himself said, “this Russia thing.” It’s clear now, as it has been all along, that Trump fired Comey because of the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
What upset Trump enough to go off in his Friday morning tweetstorm — getting ahead of the weekend rush — was an anonymously sourced story in The New York Times about the now-infamous dinner meeting between Trump and Comey. Trump said that the dinner was at Comey’s request. Trump said that during the dinner, he had asked Comey whether he was under investigation and that Comey had directly assured him that he wasn’t.
This is another story no one believed. Whatever else you think of Comey and whatever possible missteps he might have made, you tend to trust the FBI sources who told The Times that Trump invited Comey, that Comey was wary of the invitation and did not want to accept, that he would never discuss with Trump whether he was under investigation (that, also, would be wrong; that’s for sure) and that in the actual conversation, Trump asked Comey whether he would pledge loyalty to him and Comey answered that he would offer honesty instead.
That sounds like Trump. And if that’s what Comey told him, that was the beginning of the end. Personal loyalty, not truth, is what concerns Trump, and it would have to concern him even more given the fact of the FBI investigation. His willingness to fire the FBI chief in charge of the investigation— and apparently not even realizing the blowback he would receive for it — is one more bit of evidence of how little respect, and understanding, Trump has for American institutions.
With the taping threat, Trump has ensured that all the irresistible Watergate references stay alive. And the one that should worry him most is the memory — not always perfectly accurate — that brave Republicans stood up to Nixon. From break-in to resignation, the Watergate saga took more than two years. Most Republicans were very slow to condemn, or even question, Nixon. Same for the country. The five burglars had already been indicted when Nixon was carrying 49 states against George McGovern.
When Howard Baker famously asked what the president knew and when he knew it, he was actually defending Nixon. Even when the end was near and many of Nixon’s closest advisers headed to prison, the smoking gun uncovered, 10 of the 17 Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee still voted against impeachment. Of course, Baker did eventually go after the truth, as did others. And in the Saturday Night Massacre, Cox and Richardson and Ruckelshaus did become heroes for refusing Nixon’s orders. And Barry Goldwater did lead a group of three Republican to the White House to tell Nixon it was time for him to quit.
But in our speeded up times of 24/7 cable news and nonstop Twitter, Republican politicians are not exactly keeping up, and, as a rule, they’re certainly not standing up. Most have embarrassed themselves by a tepid response to what nearly everyone agrees was Russian interference in the 2016 election. And they continue to embarrass themselves by enabling Trump, by pretending that the Trump presidency is somehow normal and shouldn’t be challenged at every turn.
Maybe the most cliched Watergate saying is that the coverup is always worse than the crime. In this case, we still don’t know what the crime is or whether there is a crime at all. But the signs of a coverup are everywhere. And if the coverup is not worse than the crime, we’re in even worse trouble than I thought.
Photo via Steve Troughton, Flickr: Creative Commons
The story begins with a lie, as so many Donald Trump stories do. And while it’s hard to determine Trump’s biggest lie — cheering Muslims, Obama’s wiretapping, millions voting illegally — this one may be his least believable. And it also may be his most harmful — to him and to the country.
Not even the most ardent Trumpist could fall for the claim that Trump fired FBI Director James Comey because he had been unfair to the woman Trump called Crooked Hillary. Just go to the tape. You can’t miss Trump’s repeated praise of Comey’s bungled handling of the Clinton email investigation.
And because no one could possibly believe Trump’s obvious lie, he has forced us to believe, or at least consider, the obvious alternative — that Trump fired Comey because the FBI director was getting too close in his pursuit of the case that Trump aides may have colluded with Russia during the 2016 election.
Because what else could it be?
You don’t know with Trump, of course. It could be anything or a lot of things. But what we do know is that a president fired the FBI director in the course of being investigated by the FBI. And we do know that whoever Trump chooses to replace Comey will have no more credibility than Trump does.
This is not what is supposed to happen in our country. And even though Trump has shown only a passing interest in democratic norms and an unsettling fondness for authoritarians, this is still America, which may explain why Comey was simply fired and not poisoned. But for those who worried that Trump’s presidency would be a threat to the American democratic project, this is exactly the kind of abuse of power they had feared.
I wasn’t sure that Trump still had the ability to shock us, but he apparently does. And for Trump, this could be one shock too many. Democrats are calling — well, howling is closer to the truth — for an independent prosecutor. And Republicans, in the day after their embarrassing showing at the Sally Yates hearing, may be forced to cave. With Trump’s credibility officially shot, everyone’s credibility is now on the line.
It was Trump who tweeted this on Monday: “The Russia-Trump collusion is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer charade end?” The next day, Trump fired the leader of the, uh, charade. There is no other way to understand this. But in case we missed anything, Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders was out there saying it was time to end the Russia investigation. And Politico was reporting that Trump would yell at the TV for the cable networks’ continuing coverage of possible collusion.
The firing takes us back, of course, to Nixon and to the Saturday Night Massacre, but there are differences. As former Reagan aide Bruce Bartlett once said, “Take Nixon in the deepest days of his Watergate paranoia, subtract 50 IQ points, add Twitter, and you have Trump today.”
Nixon was desperate. Special prosecutor Archibald Cox was ready to subpoena the Nixon tapes. But when Nixon wanted Cox fired, Attorney General Elliott Richardson refused. And the deputy attorney general refused. It was finally left — in one of history’s most satisfying footnotes — to then Solicitor General Robert Bork to do the dirty work.
Today, Trump has Jeff Sessions as his attorney general. Sessions, who has already had to recuse himself in the Russia investigation, reportedly helped cook up the Clinton email rationale. And Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, confirmed just two weeks ago, basically planted the evidence. In double-quick time, the deputy wrote up a short treatise on Comey’s considerable mishandling of the Clinton emails and, in doing so, challenged those who had praised Rosenstein’s reputation for fairmindedness.
How could anyone have done a thorough investigation into Comey in two weeks? After all, it took Trump 18 days to fire Michael Flynn after Yates had told the White House that he could possibly be subject to blackmail by the Russians.
That’s the truth Republicans must now face. If you didn’t think Trump was out of control before, when he was simply blasting federal judges and trying to ban Muslims and calling Obama a sick and bad man, what can you think now? For Republicans, the question is where is today’s Howard Baker or today’s Elliott Richardson. Are they all in the same hidey hole with Cory Gardner as the chaos plays out all around them?
You can’t ignore the fact Trump was so inept in dismissing the FBI director that he gave away the game in the second paragraph of his bizarre letter to Comey: “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau.”
Trump never mentioned Clinton in his letter, of course. Instead, there was Trump’s insistence — also not very credible — that Comey had cleared him. Do you think Trump is in the clear in the Russia investigation? CNN has reported that federal prosecutors have issued grand jury subpoenas of Flynn business associates. And that’s just for starters.
Now that Comey has been fired, that favorite Watergate word — cover-up — is on everyone’s lips. And, in firing Comey, Trump has ensured that the calls for a special prosecutor will grow so loud that it will be hard for America’s most prominent TV news addict to hear anything else.
Photo courtesy of FBI, via Flickr: Creative Commons
If Cory Gardner were being honest about it — I know, a longshot — he’d have to admit that no one was rooting harder than he was for the latest iteration of Trumpcare to fail in the House.
The bill passed, of course, and now goes to the Senate. And not only will Gardner presumably be forced to vote on the bill someday, he’s one of 13 Republicans charged with actually drafting the Senate version. Since everyone expects the Senate to bury the House bill, which is basically the political equivalent of a toxic waste dump, the drafting process is where the expected long and bloody Senate fight begins.
In other words, Gardner’s fingerprints will be all over this one. And while it’s true that Gardner’s dodge is nearly as good as his legendary feint, it will be a challenge even for him to avoid taking responsibility for whatever comes out of the Senate.
You may remember way back to 2014 when Gardner was running to displace Mark Udall. Obamacare was wildly unpopular in Colorado, and Gardner was seen wildly waving that letter which, he claimed, proved Obamacare had robbed him of his insurance. It was great political theatre, without which Udall would probably still be a senator.
Let’s just say things have changed, and Donald Trump has done what Barack Obama could never do, which is to make Obamacare semi-popular. So what is Gardner to do?
He has already done what no one could have expected, which was to sign on to a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying he wouldn’t vote for any bill that didn’t sufficiently protect the Obamacare Medicaid expansion.
Let’s think about that. I’m sure Gardner has said something good about Medicaid before, but I couldn’t find it. But now, of course, 400,000 Coloradans are covered by the Medicaid expansion.
So Gardner writes, along with Senate Republican colleagues Rob Portman, Shelley Moore Capito and Lisa Murkowski, “We are concerned that any poorly implemented or poorly timed change in the current funding structure in Medicaid could result in a reduction in access to life-saving health care services.”
I’m guessing the House bill, which would cause millions to lose coverage, qualifies as reduction to access. It would steal $880 billion over a decade from Medicaid, which, at this point, provides health care to roughly 74 million people. And most of the, uh, loot would go directly to a massive tax cut for the rich, which seems to be the point of the entire exercise.
I mean, maybe Gardner, who by his own count has voted more than 40 times to repeal Obamacare, has said something good about Obamacare before, but I couldn’t find that either.
As former Denver Post conservative columnist David Harsanyi asked in a piece for The Federalist, whatever happened to the Gardner who used to brag about co-sponsoring the “Defund Obamacare Act”? That act, Harsanyi noted, included the line that “no entitlement to benefits under any provision of (Obamacare) shall remain in effect on and after the date of enactment.”
That would presumably have included the Obamacare Medicaid expansion, but let’s not get hung up on details. What matters is that Trump will sign whatever bill comes to him, whether or not it preserves Gardner’s newish concern with Medicaid’s “life-saving health care services.” Come on. Trump humiliated his own party — and himself — on the same day of the House vote by saying that Australia has a better health care system. That’s probably true. Like most countries with advanced economies, Australia provides single-payer, universal-coverage health care, which is the opposite of what the House passed and the opposite of what Trump had just praised.
The Washington Post has called Trump’s longtime support for single-payer, Medicare-for-all healthcare his forbidden love. You can guess that most Republicans opted for more colorful descriptions.
In any case, you can see Gardner’s problem. Mike Coffman, who was supporting Trumpcare until he finally figured out how badly the politics played for him, was one of 20 House Republicans to vote against the bill. But the GOP has such an overwhelming advantage in the House that it squeaked through anyway. Republicans have only 52 votes in the Senate, meaning that even if they write the bill so that it can technically avoid a Democratic filibuster, they still need 50 votes, plus Mike Pence in a tiebreaker.
If they don’t have Gardner, they don’t have a bill. It dies in the Senate. That’s the math because if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that whatever Gardner might have said about Trump in the past, he won’t put himself in a position where he’s one of only, say, two Republican senators to defy the president today.
If they do have Gardner, or at least the Gardner he wants us to think he is, that’s another story, but with a similar ending. If the Senate passes a bill that does protect Medicaid — as Gardner has put himself on the record as defending — it will never get through the House. And if the Senate passes a bill that ensures people with pre-existing conditions are fully covered — a political necessity that House Republicans chose to ignore — it will never get through the House.
Of course, those aren’t the only scenarios. There’s a potentially much scarier one, especially for Gardner. The Senate could create a bill that miraculously unites a fractured Republican Party in agreement that it simply can’t afford the embarrassment of failing to undo Obamacare. And so America would take a tragic step backwards by adopting Trumpcare or Terrificare or what would surely come to be known in Colorado as Corycare.
Screenshot of video of Sen. Cory Gardner at May 3 energy hearing via Gardner’s Youtube channel.
If you didn’t see Mike Coffman at the White House “victory” party, you can’t exactly blame him. After voting “no” on Trumpcare, which passed narrowly without him, he was probably at home enjoying his own private celebration.
He’s off the hook, at least for now, on a vote that was pure lose-lose for him — and, if history is any judge, puts his seat at risk. Now all the pressure goes directly to the Senate and to Cory Gardner, who had already begun to back away from the House bill.
The House was so desperate to be rid of radioactive Trumpcare that they voted on it without waiting for the CBO to score it and without (in a pretty delicious irony) sufficient time to have even read the bill.
For those of us keeping score at home, there are a couple of things we know without benefit of a CBO score: The Obamacare “repeal” bill wasn’t exactly a repeal. And the “victory” wasn’t a victory at all. Despite the beaming smile on the sick-of-winning face of Donald Trump, the only victory was that the bill would be sent to the Senate, where it faces what they like to call an uncertain future.
In fact, the biggest selling point for those Republicans reluctant to vote for the House bill was that they shouldn’t worry because the Senate would never pass it as constituted. You have to hope that’s true since the bill’s first CBO score estimated that 24 million people would lose their health care coverage and that a typical 64-year-old woman could see her premiums rise by more than 700 percent. And, yes, this version of the bill is even worse, which explains why nearly every industry and consumer group, from the AMA to AARP, strongly opposed the bill
So how much of a victory is this for Trump? In terms he might understand, he held a victory party at half time. In the second half, the unpopular bill goes to the Senate where it will stay for months. The senators will destroy much of the House bill and then possibly — although hardly certainly — pass a bill that, in overtime, would never get through the House. All the while, the unpopular bill stays in the headlines.
The big argument now is whether it’s better for Republicans to pass a bill — which would expose the fact that Trump’s terrificare was more terrifying than terrific — or to suffer the humiliation of passing nothing at all.
Not surprisingly, the Senate-won’t-vote-it gambit was not a good enough argument for Coffman, who has had weeks to mull over his gaffe on the first iteration of the bill. As you may remember, Coffman publicly supported a bill so unpopular that the House couldn’t even bring it to a vote. Meanwhile, Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com estimated that voters in Coffman’s CD-6 opposed Trumpcare by a whopping 53-31 margin.
So, this time, Coffman announced just prior to the vote that he was opposed, just to make sure in all the tumult that no one missed the fact. According to a Denver Post report, Coffman was lobbied by the president and the Vice President in the half hour leading up to the vote. Coffman still resisted.
Coffman would say in his announcement opposing the bill that he was worried about putting at risk coverage of the “small percentage” of those with pre-existing conditions and that, in any case, he would never vote for a bill this significant without a CBO score. Of course, he had knownfor days there would be no CBO score. And he also knows that that the small percentage could include many hundreds of thousands of people.
It’s a terrible bill, which is why it needed so long to get through a House that had voted dozens of times to repeal Obamacare over the last seven years. And if, like Coffman, you somehow missed the party in the Rose Garden, you’ll have many chances to see it in attack ads showing Republicans wildly celebrating what turns out to be a massive tax cut for the rich to be paid for by reducing or eliminating coverage for the poor and for the near poor and for those who are sicker and for those who are older.
Meanwhile, the bill would also cut nearly $900 million from Medicaid while, in order to win over the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus, allowing state to waive requirements that cap costs for those with pre-existing conditions and also the requirement that essential benefits like maternity care and mental health care are covered.
You could see where this is headed. In the midterms after Obamacare was passed, Democrats were crushed, losing 63 votes in the House and the majority. Will something similar happen to Republicans if they repeal much of Obamacare? Now, for the first time, Obamacare has majority support. Mandatory coverage for pre-existing conditions has overwhelming support, as does Medicaid.
And whether the bill passes or not, it is now, finally, the official Republican response to Obamacare. Nancy Pelosi called it a tattoo that Republicans will wear on their foreheads. We’ll see what that means for Coffman, who now has a would-be yes vote as well as a no vote on his scorecard. If I were advising Coffman, I’d tell him to wear a Rockies cap just to be sure.
Photo: Stephen Nulty via Flickr Creative Commons
As we hit the 100-day mark for the historic failure that is the Trump presidency, the question we should be discussing is not whether his first 100 days have been a disaster — of course they have been— but why they’ve been a disaster.
And the one unavoidable conclusion is that it’s not all Donald Trump’s fault.
Congressional Republicans — starting with Paul Ryan — are major players in the disaster. It’s not just that they enabled Trump. Which they did. It’s not just that they stood by while Trump played the race card and the xenophobia card and the whole ugly deck of cards. Which they did.
It’s not just that GOP leaders sold their souls for legislation they can’t even seem to pass. Which they did. (At least when New Deal Democrats sold their souls to Dixiecrats, they got legislation passed for their sins.)
It’s not just that GOP leaders who know better stand by as Trump sends ICE agents to round up non-criminal undocumented immigrants, forcing people back into the shadows, ensuring that millions of them — most lured here by the promise of jobs — must live in fear. Which they do.
That’s just the beginning. There are the various House committees that can’t bring themselves to investigate the Russian impact on the 2016 elections or admit that a special prosecutor is needed. And the Senate that confirmed some of the least qualified cabinet secretaries in recent history. And the members from both houses of Congress who largely look the other way as Trump rattles his sabers. (This just in: Even as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was sounding out North Korea for possible direct talks — and strategic patience — Trump is being quoted as saying we could be looking at a “major, major conflict” with North Korea.)
It’s not even the fact that Republicans can’t bring themselves to concede the level of Trump’s ignorance, even as Trump gladly does so. In a Reuters 100-day interview, Trump said he was surprised at how hard the job was. And the sad thing — for once, truly sad — is that he said it without embarrassment. He just doesn’t know enough to know he should be embarrassed.
No, the real blame here is that the GOP Congress, after standing firm in opposition to all things Obama, seems to have nothing to offer in Obama’s stead. If Trump’s report card after 100 days is a solid F, what do you give Congress?
Let’s take two of Trump’s most notable failures. The first is the wall, or the non-wall, or the fantasy wall, or the never-to-be-built wall. No one wants to pay for a wall, for which estimates run as high as $25 billion and which, if built, would be a testimony to the failure of America’s foreign policy with Mexico. Of course Mexico is not going to pay for it. That was just Trumpian bluster. And, of course, Congress is not going to pay for it. He tried the bluff on Congress, which immediately called him. And clearly every poll shows the people don’t want to pay for it because that was never part of the deal.
OK, so that’s on Trump, who was ready to let the government shut down for a wall most people don’t want. But it’s also on those many timid Republicans unwilling to say how absurd the idea is, even when, according to the Wall Street Journal, not a single Republican whose district stands along the Mexican border now publicly favors the non-wall.
But then there’s the bigger failure, the one that was much harder to foresee, the failure to repeal and/or replace Obamacare. Byron York has a piece in the Washington Examiner in which he says Republicans tell him that as many as 50 GOP House members don’t want to repeal Obamacare. If you can do the math — and Trump’s one-entire-page tax “plan” suggests he can’t — you see that that means they don’t have the votes to repeal or replace Obamacare.
Yes, you can blame Trump for saying that he would repeal Obamacare on his first day, but you can’t blame him for assuming Republicans were serious about repealing it. They had voted, by one count, 74 times to repeal or delay or replace it. Why wouldn’t he assume that Obamacare must really be the horror show that virtually every Republican in every state has been saying for years?
And if it’s fair to say that Trump couldn’t negotiate a deal because he doesn’t know anything about health care or that cutting a deal with the far-right Freedom Caucus would lose votes from centrist Republicans, it’s also fair to say that Paul Ryan should have known he couldn’t get the votes. It’s clear now that Republicans who represent moderate districts know they’d get crushed in 2018 if they voted to pull the plug on a law that Trump’s opposition has suddenly made, well, popular.
To understand the failure, look to our own Mike Coffman, who made the spectacular gaffe of publicly supporting the first Ryan AHCA bill, the one that didn’t even come to a vote because it would have been defeated. Now that we’re in Round 2, with a replacement bill rushed to the front to give Trump a 100-day boost, Coffman says he’s a “no” if the vote were today, even though there won’t be a vote this week — because Republicans still don’t have the votes.
But Coffman needed to get on record fast because he needed to get on board with his district. It was an embarrassing cave for Coffman — who is trying to distance himself from Trump without distancing himself too far —but not just for Coffman. The first 100 days are an embarrassment for Trump, for Republicans, for the nation.
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