Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images
As a Senate leadership aide during the passage and implementation of the Affordable Care Act, I have been asked several times since Friday whether I take any joy in the epic explosion of the Trump-Ryan repeal-and-replace bill.
I love schadenfreude as much as the next person, but what happened on Friday isn’t even worthy of the term—because I don’t think this fight is over by a longshot, and because what Republicans “have gone through” to date isn’t all that noteworthy.
Congressional Democrats and the Obama administration suffered through a year-long draining, legislative and political fight battle royale to—just barely—get the ACA over the finish line.
Looking back, we underestimated how complex the process and policy would be. There were starts and stops, frustrating setbacks, and daily infighting. But despite it all, we believed in what we were doing and after 13 long months we accomplished a monumental goal.
Compare that to what we have just witnessed from the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans. They spent 18 days trying to figure this out. Eighteen frigging days. That was the extent of their resolve. And if you dissect the very short life of the Trump-Ryan plan it is obvious that for as horrible as the policy was, the presentation was that much worse.
Ask yourselves this question: For seven years, you’ve made repeal-and-replace the centerpiece of your political existence. You finally get the opportunity to do so, aided by a Republican president, a Senate majority, and the largest House majority in generations. To accomplish this, would you do all of the requisite work needed to achieve success or would you make a weak attempt destined to fail?
The most laughable moment of this debacle was during Friday’s White House press briefing when it was asserted President Trump had done everything he could to pass the Republican health care bill.
In the matter of one week in December 2009, Senator Harry Reid convinced the anti-war Senator Russ Feingold to vote for a war funding bill, broke a sickly Senator Byrd out of the hospital because we needed his vote and kept the Senate in on Christmas Eve—all in an effort to pass the ACA.
That, Mr. President, is doing everything in your power.
So, I can’t empathize with Republicans or respect their efforts, not only because I don’t agree them, but because they didn’t make any effort in the first place. But herein lies the problem for Democrats and supporters of the ACA—this is just the first battle.
It is obvious at this point neither President Trump or House Republicans know yet how to effectively govern.
Gerrymandering, the process of drawing distorted legislative districts to undermine democracy, is as old as our republic itself. Just as ancient: the Supreme Court’s unwillingness to get involved and determine a standard for when a partisan gerrymander has gone too far.
That might be changing. During the 2000s, Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed openness to a judicial remedy, if an evenhanded measure could be devised to identify when aggressive redistricting was no longer just politics as usual.
When the pivotal swing justice looks for a standard, law professors and redistricting nerds get to work. There are now several cases related to the extreme maps drawn after the 2010 census – by Republicans in Wisconsin and North Carolina, and by Democrats in Maryland – on a collision course with the Supreme Court.
The case with the most promise to deliver a lasting judicial remedy is Whitford v. Gill, from Wisconsin, which advances a fascinating standard called the “efficiency gap.” It is the brainchild of law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos and political scientist Eric McGhee, but has an elegant simplicity that is easily understandable outside of academia. If gerrymandering is the dark art of wasting the other party’s votes – either by “packing” them into as few districts as possible, or “cracking” them into sizable minorities in many seats – the efficiency gap compares wasted votes that do not contribute to victory.
In November, a panel of federal judges smiled upon this standard and ruled that the state assembly districts drawn by a Republican legislature in the Whitford case represented an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. “Although Wisconsin’s natural political geography plays some role in the apportionment process, it simply does not explain adequately the sizable disparate” advantage held by Republicans under these new maps, wrote the court.
The judges ordered new state assembly maps in time for the 2018 election – a big deal, considering these district lines have helped give Republicans their largest legislative majorities in several decades, despite years in which Democratic candidates receive more votes. But just as important, it accepted the “efficiency gap” rationale and sent it toward Justice Kennedy. If Kennedy finds it workable, it would become much more difficult for politicians to choose their own voters and rig maps in their favor.
If this case makes history, it will be thanks to the commitment of lawyers and political scientists, but also to the Wisconsin citizens who launched it, starting with regular meetings at a Madison tea room. The plaintiff whose name could become synonymous with taming the gerrymander and restoring fairness and competitiveness to our elections is a retired law professor named Bill Whitford. We sat down at a redistricting conference at Duke University this month to discuss his case, the efficiency gap and all the luck it has required along the way.
Let me start with the obvious questions: How did you become interested in redistricting? And how did you become the plaintiff in what could be the most important Supreme Court decision on partisan gerrymandering ever?
I’ve been a political junkie from the word go. I grew up in Madison. My mother was very political. By the time I was 13 or 14, I was a big-D Democrat, working on campaigns. I was chairman of the Young Democrats as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. Then I went to law school straight out of college, mostly interested in constitutional law. Baker v. Carr was decided [in 1962] while I was in law school. I wrote my very first academic article, as a student, on Baker v. Carr.
That’s amazing: Baker v. Carr is the decision that allows the federal courts to get involved in redistricting matters. The hunt for redistricting’s holy grail – a standard to measure partisan gerrymandering, the goal of Whitford – begins there.
Yes, it argued even then about what the standard should be. I got a job as a law school professor teaching assigned contracts, and then went a different way in terms of my academic specialties. But I always remained a Democratic activist interested in politics and redistricting. That’s my birthright, I guess!
Your retirement comes 50 years after the Baker decision, and at a time when Wisconsin is the new ground zero of the gerrymandering fight. Republicans captured both chambers of the state legislature in 2010, Scott Walker became governor, and the maps they enacted in 2011 are some of the most tilted any state has seen in four decades. Democrats win more votes, but Republicans win an outrageous 2012 Assembly supermajority anyway. How did you join the fight?
There was a group that met and talked in the Watts Tea Room in Madison that grew out of the lack of success of the first legal challenge to these maps. [The court found an unconstitutional racial gerrymander in that case and forced several largely Latino districts in Milwaukee to be redrawn.] I wasn’t a part of the original group, but the guy who was as responsible as anybody for it was a Wisconsin legislator and redistricting guru named Fred Kessler. We’d been active in Young Democrats as undergraduates. He knew that I was retiring and asked me if I would like to join the group. That’s how I became involved in this case.
Let me get this straight: You’re saying that we’re this close to a national standard on partisan gerrymandering because a group of frustrated old friends and retirees had a regular meeting at a Madison tea room and put this whole thing together?
Well, some of the members of that group were lawyers in the earlier case. They were very aware of the kind of information [about the behind-the-scenes GOP redistricting chicanery] that was available in discovery. We knew we had a lot of smoking-gun evidence that would indicate partisan intent, and it turned out that we had even more than we thought. But by then we also had the results of the 2012 elections, where Democrats got a majority of the statewide vote but only 39 percent of the seats. By any measure for partisan effect, that was pretty good data. Then we began shopping for lawyers and we stumbled onto Nick Stephanopoulos and Ruth Greenwood.
That’s remarkable luck: Nick and Eric McGhee had been studying the Wisconsin redistricting. Using a new standard they developed called the efficiency gap to quantify the impact of a partisan gerrymander, they discovered that you had one of the most unrepresentative legislatures in any state over the last several decades. How did you stumble across this?
One of the roles I played in the group was to reach out to professors in academia, both to feel them out for ideas and to see if they thought we had a decent test case. We thought we had a very good fact situation for a test case, but there was also the issue of whether we should wait for the 2020 cycle before it wound up in court. Rick Pildes of NYU Law School was one of these people. I just called him up cold.
Turns out, Rick got the original Stephanopoulos and McGhee draft paper where they explained the efficiency gap. As part of the election-law community, he’d been asked to make comments. He alerted us to this and suggested Eric would make a good expert witness. I read the article and saw that he talked all about Wisconsin. That’s how we got into the efficiency gap. Then in my initial phone call with Nick, he mentioned that his girlfriend was the incoming voting rights director for the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. Ruth and Nick soon came to Madison and started meeting with the group.
How do you explain the efficiency gap to your friends and neighbors? It’s complicated and involves math. What’s the elevator pitch?
I simply start out talking about “packing and cracking.” They’re the essential tools of gerrymandering. I don’t really stress the efficiency gap. If I had to explain the efficiency gap, I’d go to the concept of lots of wasted votes – but I would first start off with packing and cracking, then explain wasted votes in the context of packing and cracking.
And what do we mean by “wasted votes” in this context?
Wasted votes are all the votes for the losing candidate plus all the votes for the winning candidate above 50 percent plus one.
The art of gerrymandering is the art of wasting the other side’s votes as efficiently as you can.
Yes, and the efficiency gap measures the way that a party favored to win does so by wasting as few votes as possible – voters that can then be spread into other districts. The party that’s disfavored by the maps wins their seats by a substantial margin. Those voters are packed into that district. In a cracked district, there are a lot of wasted votes for the losing party – who might get 45 percent – but very few for the winning party. That’s how I explain it.
Did a bell go off in your head when you saw this paper? This is it! This is the standard that we’re looking for?
It’s a possible standard. To tell you the truth, in the meetings with Nick and Ruth in Milwaukee …
I mean, people were talking about it today as the long-sought holy grail.
Some people were attracted to the efficiency gap. Others said, “Well, just a minute now, we want a test case of partisan gerrymandering. We don’t want this to be a case which gets Nick Stephanopoulos his Ph.D. thesis!” I’ve become a fan more and more as time has gone on. But you have to remember, we were kind of beggars. At the time, we were looking for some free lawyers who would take the case!
An awful lot of luck has to happen. Assuming we win this case, a lot of little lucky things had to happen in the interim, like the recall election that allowed the Democrats to take control of the State Senate, without which we wouldn’t have gotten a lot of the discovery – the hard drives, the emails – that was part of the smoking gun on partisan intent.
When the Republicans redistricted, they set it up in a way designed to produce confidentiality: They had the State Senate and Assembly hire a lawyer with state funds, then sent over the actual map drawers – many of whom were legislative staffers – made them employees of the law firm, and tried to protect all their work under lawyer-client privilege. The courts blew through that and required disclosure.
But when the Democrats got control of the State Senate, they were suddenly clients of the law firm, because they were using state funds. They asked the law firm for the records. The law firm complied – and we discovered there were things that had been turned over to the State Senate leadership that should have been in the disclosure to the lawyers in the previous case, but were not: hard drives that contained not only the emails, but all the memorandums, all the drafting documents, draft maps, everything. The court just flipped at that.
What would you call the most insidious effects of partisan gerrymandering?
Well, I’d say there are two consequences that are most insidious. There are the various consequences in terms of legislation. Certainly the substantial defunding of the University of Wisconsin system, the right-to-work legislation – those would be examples.
The other impact is the noticeable dampening of enthusiasm for campaigning for local elections. At a statewide level, when you try to recruit people to run for office or work for campaigns, they think the idea of putting Democrats into the majority is hopeless. It’s had a real chilling effect in that respect, and quite understandably so.
There was an amazing number out of Wisconsin in 2016: Out of 99 state Assembly districts, 47 lacked a major-party challenger. Everyone looked at the districts, measured the likelihood of winning, and passed on even making a race.
That’s a pretty big number. It’s the lack of competitive seats. The efficiency gap nicely sums it up – there are many more Democratic seats that are won with 75-percent-plus of the votes than Republican seats. There are very few swing districts. The Democrats’ votes are packed, cracked and wasted. Then there are a bunch of Republican seats [where] they win around 55 or 60 percent – they win many more seats, much more efficiently.
What is your hope? Ideally what is the best result, as you look at this?
I hope we win. I hope the courts begin to get into the area of setting some limits. All the data shows that gerrymandering is only getting worse, by both sides. It’s a problem, and a national one, of single-party control.
Right now, Republicans are doing it more than Democrats. That’s because more states have single-party Republican control than [are controlled by] Democrats. But I’m not claiming Democrats are holier than thou. The courts can shake that up a bit, and they need to. But it’s only going to set some limits. It doesn’t mean it’s the end of partisan gerrymandering.
It’s very encouraging to see everything that’s going on around the country. This is a real problem for democracy and an increasing number of people seem to understand that. Ultimately, we have to get redistricting out of the hands of legislatures. There are problems with commissions and a lot of issues about how you structure them. They’ll need structure from the courts. But the first essential step is to take the power away from legislators.
Have you spent any time examining alternative election forms like ranked-choice voting or multi-member districts, both of which would be more effective in providing choice and options to voters than a commission?
I am hardly an expert but I am familiar, because I am a political junkie and my friends do this kind of stuff. My gut tells me that’s a harder sell – but it’s certainly possible that you could get ranked-choice voting in many states and municipalities. That seems to be a good system to me, but it could take a while.
You started in a tea room. Now you’re on the verge of the Supreme Court. Not a bad run – and you could go down in history as the plaintiff who changed everything.
If we win, my grandchildren will know me as the plaintiff in this case. They won’t know what I did as a law professor. I get a lot of congratulations, but I really feel like what I did was a relatively small amount. My role has been small compared to a lot of the others. My fear would be that we win, and then there’s a change on the Supreme Court a year or two later, and it all somehow ends up reversed.
It’s nice symmetry to have spent time studying Baker v. Carr, and then coming back around to this. It’s been fun and it’s been a good retirement activity. Saving democracy.
© Greg Nash
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is urging Democrats to join him in opposing Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court.
The question is whether Schumer’s entire caucus will follow him in a filibuster of the nomination, which would force Republicans to win 60 votes for his nomination.
Republicans have warned they will go “nuclear” and change the Senate’s rules to force through the Gorsuch nomination if Democrats block a nominee they say is fully qualified for the court.Democrats, emboldened by opposition to Trump on the left, are still stinging over the GOP blockade against President Obama’s nominee to the court, Merrick Garland.
GOP leaders are eyeing a final confirmation vote in early April.
Here’s where Democrats stand on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee:
Last updated at 1:08 p.m. March 25.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.)
Whitehouse said he was not convinced that Gorsuch wouldn’t “pick up where Justice Scalia and his troop left off,” by issuing rulings — such as on campaign finance — that benefit Republicans.
“Judge Gorsuch needed to convince me he would not join the posse that has relentlessly stretched the law to benefit Republican partisans and corporations at the expense of everyone else. He did not. He will not get my vote,” he said in a March 24 statement.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.)
Baldwin is up for re-election in 2018 in a pro-Trump state but she will vote against his Supreme Court pick.
“President Trump needs to earn 60 votes in the Senate, but I am not one of them,” Baldwin said, according to ThinkProgress, a liberal blog.
She said she has “concerns about this nominee’s deeply troubling record.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio)
“The people of Ohio deserve Supreme Court Justices who will defend the rights of working families over Wall Street and corporate special interests — and Judge Gorsuch’s record doesn’t pass that test,” Brown said in a statement.
Sen. Bob Casey (Pa.)
“I don’t believe that Judge Gorsuch, his judicial approach, would ensure fairness for workers and families in Pennsylvania … and I will not support his nomination.”
Casey is up for reelection in 2018 in a state President Trump won.
Sen. Ed Markey (Mass.)
“Judge Gorsuch has sided with corporations over the environment, the disabled, and consumers. We need a Supreme Court justice who will stand up for the rights of all Americans against big corporate interests, and Judge Neil Gorsuch’s record is proof that he not that justice.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (Ore.)
“This is a stolen seat being filled by an illegitimate and extreme nominee, and I will do everything in my power to stand up against this assault on the Court.”
Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.)
“I have concluded that his anti-worker record, his troubling history working on torture policy for the Bush administration, and his hostility toward upholding disability rights make me unable to support his nomination to the Supreme Court.”
Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.)
“If Judge Gorsuch is confirmed to the Supreme Court, I worry he would try to circumscribe voting rights and consumer protections and impose new constraints on civil liberties and women’s health care and roll back clean air laws.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
“After careful consideration of Judge Gorsuch’s record, I have concluded that I will not vote to confirm him to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court.
“I will not support Republican efforts to change the rules to choke off debate and ram the nomination through the Senate.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.)
“He will have to earn 60 votes for confirmation. My vote will be no, and I urge my colleagues to do the same.”
Sen. Tom Udall (N.M.)
Udall, who recently floated the idea of confirming Gorsuch and President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, simultaneously, has come out against confirming Gorsuch alone.
“He failed to answer questions that are critical for me — his position on the rights of working mothers, whether women can choose their own health care decisions, LGBTQ rights, and dark money in our elections,” Udall told the Albuquerque Journal
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.)
“I’ve strongly opposed the Gorsuch nomination. Giant companies don’t need another Supreme Court justice to tilt the law in their favor.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.)
“I will vote no on his nomination and I will vote to sustain a filibuster.”
Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.)
Bennet was criticized by the liberal group CREDO Action after praising fellow Coloradan Gorsuch’s integrity and intellect while introducing the nominee to the Judiciary Committee on March 20.
Asked Thursday if he would vote for Gorsuch, Bennet said, “I’m thinking about it.”
Sen. Joe Donnelly (Ind.)
Facing re-election next year in a state President Trump won by 19 points, Donnelly is considered a prime candidate to vote for Gorsuch. He has yet to announce his position.
Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.)
A spokesman says, “He has not announced his position yet.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich (N.M.)
Heinrich told The Hill Thursday that he remains undecided.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.)
One of the most centrist members of the Democratic caucus, Heitkamp met with Trump after the election to discuss areas of common ground. She plans to review footage of the confirmation hearing before announcing her vote on Gorsuch
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine)
King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, earlier this month praised Gorsuch’s record on the 10thCircuit Court of Appeals as “exceedingly independent” but said Thursday he hasn’t made up his mind yet.
Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.)
Manchin said on March 23 that he’s setting up a second meeting with Gorsuch and will make a decision after discussing follow-up questions with the nominee.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.)
McCaskill has steadfastly refused to comment on the nominee, a strategy she stuck to Thursday after he finished testifying before the Judiciary panel.
“I’m not talking about Gorsuch,” she said.
Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.)
A spokesman for Nelson, who is up for re-election next year in a state Trump won narrowly, says his boss is “undecided.”
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.)
A close ally of Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer, she will likely come out against Gorsuch but has not yet put out a statement.
She faces re-election next year in a state Trump carried.
Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.)
Tester wasn’t thrilled with Gorsuch’s testimony but he will not announce his decision until the week of March 27.
“There are some things I wish he had been a little bit more clear on. There are some questions he didn’t answer,” he told The Hill.
THE HILL STAFF
Screenshot “CBS This Morning”
Ted Koppel has a bone to pick with Sean Hannity, and he’s not hesitant to do it directly, on the Fox News anchor’s own show.
This very scenario unfolded in a clip from “Hannity” that aired on “CBS Sunday Morning” as part of a story about political polarization in the U.S. The former ABC anchorman, who retired from “Nightline” 12 years ago, answered affirmatively when Hannity asked him: “Am I bad for America?”
Koppel backed up his claim by pointing to the melding of hard news and opinion in recent years, adding: “You have attracted people who have determined that ideology is more important than fact.” Koppel apparently does not count his own work as potentially ideological or misleadingly blending op-ed and hard-news delivery styles.
Watch the clip in full below (Koppel’s “bad for America” comment occurs around the six-minute mark) from “CBS Sunday Morning”:
J. Scott Applewhite
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) on Sunday said that the House “moved a bit too fast” on its bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, which he compared unfavorably to the process Democrats used to pass the original health care legislation in 2010.
“I think the House moved a bit too fast. 18 days is simply not enough time for such a major landmark legislation,” Cotton said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.”
He said that Republicans will have to “revisit” the bill, though House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and the White House both appeared eager to move on to other areas of policy after the legislation was pulled on Friday less than an hour before it was scheduled to go to the House floor.
“We now have the time to do it in a more deliberate and careful fashion,” Cotton said. “To release a bill that was written in secret and then expect to pass it in 18 days I just don’t think was feasible.”
He unfavorably compared Republican efforts to bring the bill to Trump’s desk to Democrats’ work on health care legislation in 2009.
“For 60 years at least they had been pursuing a national health care system, yet they didn’t introduce legislation for eight months,” Cotton said. “They didn’t pass it for over a year of Barack Obama’s first term.”
He said that Democrats used public hearings and testimony, and noted that Obama held town halls on the plan, which he also discussed in a speech to a joint session of Congress.
“I’m not saying that we needed 14 months to do this,” Cotton said. “But I think that a more careful and deliberate approach, which we now have time to do because we’re going to have to revisit health care anyway, would have gotten us further down the path toward a solution.”
House Republicans released their bill to repeal and replace Obamacare on March 6 and originally scheduled it for a vote on March 24 — as Cotton noted, only 18 days later.
Featured image via Win McNamee/Getty Images
It’s not clear whether Trump called in a favor or Fox News decided to impress the new boss by taking the initiative, but in any case the most hamfisted attempt to lie on Trump’s behalf just came out of the Fox News official Twitter account. It did not go well.
Following a weekend in which Trump visited his own Virginia golf course twice and took the night off to have a large dinner at his own DC hotel, Fox News released an urgent “news alert”: Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain, Nothing To See Here!
Setting aside for a moment the sheer lunacy of the bar being set so low for Donald Trump that spending three consecutive days in the official presidential residence is considered worthy of a “news alert,” the statement was a complete and total lie. There are photographs that prove Trump was not in the White House this weekend. They also prove that he wasn’t working this weekend — at any location. He appears to have spent much of the past three days golfing.
Here’s Trump watching the Golf Channel with a few friends at his golf resort in Virginia on Sunday morning:
At 11:04a Trump arrived at Trump Natl Golf Club in VA.
At 11:37a pool is told Trump already had 3 meetings and is going back to WH.
— Steve Kopack (@SteveKopack) March 26, 2017
And here’s Trump in golf attire at the same golf course the previous day, shortly before another photograph emerged of him on the course in a golf cart:
— Alex Marshall (@a_r_marshall) March 25, 2017
And here’s Trump’s own staff admitting he played all 18 holes on Saturday.
Trump golfed 18 holes yesterday on the “championship” course here with the club pro and a club member, fellow members tell me today. pic.twitter.com/pnyOYajRAj
— Jennifer Jacobs (@JenniferJJacobs) March 26, 2017
And here’s Trump heading to his DC hotel to throw a dinner for himself and his friends on Saturday night. (Not sure what the occasion was, but it certainly wasn’t in celebration of the healthcare bill he and Paul Ryan failed to pass the day before.)
The press pool has arrived at the Trump International Hotel where the president is going to have dinner.
— Adrian Carrasquillo (@Carrasquillo) March 26, 2017
Why would a supposed news organization propagate such an absurd falsehood when there’s widespread proof to the contrary? pic.twitter.com/v4dZdISHKp
— Matt McDermott (@mattmfm) March 26, 2017
— Erick Fernandez (@ErickFernandez) March 26, 2017
— Matt McDermott (@mattmfm) March 26, 2017
As one user put it: Come on, Fox News, have a little self-respect.
— Fox News (@FoxNews) March 26, 2017
John Minchillo/Associated Press
Michael Flynn’s resignation — under fire — as national security adviser has the larger question of Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia back in the news. It’s a story that centers on three big, but fundamentally unproven, allegations: that Trump is on the take from Russia, that he is somehow exposed to Russian blackmail material, that his campaign actively collaborated with the Russian government during the 2016 campaign, or some combination of the above.
The evidence for those explosive charges is thin.
What we have instead are a lot of small, unanswered questions. Questions about Flynn’s behavior and the circumstances of his firing. Questions about the behavior of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and the circumstances of his firing. Questions about enigmatic remarks made by longtime Trump associate and veteran political operative Roger Stone. Questions about an obscure American businessman named Carter Page who maybe — or maybe not — worked for some time with the Trump campaign.
But there are also longstanding questions about the opaque financing of the Trump Organization, and about why its founder and owner has been so reluctant to engage in normal levels of financial disclosure. And most of all, there are questions about Trump’s highly unorthodox attitudes toward Russia, its government, and its leader, Vladimir Putin.
Here, in convenient list form, are the 30 small questions and three big ones about Donald Trump and Russia.
Michael Flynn was a well-regarded, if somewhat unorthodox, Army officer who was promoted to head the Defense Intelligence Agency. There, he clashed with colleagues over disparate visions for the structure of the overall intelligence community and with the Obama White House over Iran policy. He was fired and sent to the fringes of the policy community, from whence he returned with out-of-the-mainstream opinions on Islam and Russia policy, a close association with the Russian television network RT, and an affiliation with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
A top aide to the president, he was recently fired as part of the fallout of a telephone call with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, during which they discussed the Obama administration’s imposition of sanctions to punish Russia for interfering in the American election. Trump says Flynn was fired due to a loss of trust between the two men, but that Flynn’s underlying conduct in making the call was fine. But:
Carter Page was an American businessman of no particular renown who worked in the Moscow office of Merrill Lynch before striking out on his own with a consulting company. Nobody in Washington — and few people in Moscow — seems to have heard of him when Trump started naming him as a member of his then-threadbare national security team. The résumé boost seems to have been a boon to Page’s stature in Russia, where he portrayed himself as a big shot in ways that ended up being a liability to Trump.
His association with the Trump team ended rapidly, and Trump has ever since been at pains to minimize the degree of contact he ever had with Page.
Roger Stone is a veteran Republican Party political operative dating back to the Nixon administration, when he was a leading perpetrator of “dirty tricks” politics. By the 21st century, he was a marginal figure in national GOP politics but continued to be a player in New York via his connections to former New York state Senate Republican leader Joseph Bruno (who was later convicted on multiple corruption charges that were eventually overturned). He’s also a longtime friend of Trump’s, and a bridge between pre-campaign Trumpworld and the world of politics.
His exact role in the evolving Trump campaign is unclear, but he has at various times appeared to be strikingly in the know about the goings-on of WikiLeaks, and anonymously sourced news articles have suggested his ties to Russian government figures are the subject of ongoing investigation.
Paul Manafort, like Stone, is an old-line Republican Party operative who’d somewhat fallen out of the national party mainstream. But while Stone became a colorful domestic figure, Manafort sought his fortunes abroad — offering consulting and lobbying services to an array of unsavory foreign governments, and eventually finding work for Ukrainian politician Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions, Moscow’s main vehicle for influence in Ukraine during the 21st-century tug of war for dominance over that country.
Donald Trump’s financial disclosure forms reveal essentially nothing about his underlying finances, because all they show is that he is the full or partial owner of a sprawling array of limited liability companies that together comprise the Trump Organization. These are privately held “pass-through” entities, whose profits and losses show up on the individual income taxes of their owners — Trump and his partners.
Because Trump has not disclosed his tax returns, this means we have no real idea how his businesses operate or where they get their money. Trump loudly proclaims he has no deals in Russia, but the physical location of deals is not the issue. And Trump has not amassed the kind of sterling record of honesty that should make anyone inclined to simply take his word for it.
Before Trump arrived on the scene, the overwhelming consensus in Republican Party politics was that the Obama administration had been too soft on Russia. Republicans believed the New START Treaty made too many concessions to Moscow, that Obama had not intervened forcefully enough against Russia’s allies in the Syrian government, that he had not done enough to back the Ukrainian government, and that he had committed insufficient military resources to the defense of Central Europe.
Trump reversed all that. And while seeming very flexible on most policy matters, he has remained quite rigid in his insistence on replacing the GOP’s old “more hawkish on Russia than Obama” stance with a new “more friendly to Russia than Obama” stance.
A lot of these details are essentially trivia, but they add up to a few big, explosive questions about why the president of the United States keeps needing to distance himself from his own associates, won’t reveal what’s going on with his money, and insists on advancing an unusual foreign policy doctrine.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” is a good dictum for forestry management but doesn’t really apply to politics.
Politicians try to avoid embarrassment, and a simple desire to own up to something embarrassing — rather than anything illegal or genuinely nefarious — often lies behind mysterious behavior. It’s entirely possible that Page ended up on the roster of Trump advisers simply because a disorganized campaign was taken in by a grifter. Trump’s refusal to engage in standard financial disclosure certainly seems to be about covering up something, but that something could have nothing to do with Russia.
The shifting and inconsistent stories about the Flynn timeline could be nothing more than a disorganized and distrustful White House staff bungling something and then compounding the bungling by not wanting to admit they were bungling.
Trump’s boast about meeting with oligarchs could just be a habitually dishonest person lying for no particular reason.
But especially in light of Trump’s unorthodox policy views on Russia, the sheer quantity of outstanding questions and loose threads is remarkable.
That’s doubly so because the Trump team has repeatedly tried to have it both ways on a number of these fronts — with Stone, Manafort, Page, and Flynn all distanced from Trump once their Russia connections came to light, even as Trump denies there was any underlying wrongdoing and appears not to have fully severed ties.
Trump has repeatedly, and increasingly angrily, suggested that the answer to the three big questions is uniformly no. But his inability to provide satisfactory answers to the myriad other questions means it’s hard to take him at his word.
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It was strong-arming the Republican establishment that brought Donald Trump to power. But now that Trump has to work with that establishment to make good on campaign promises, strong-arming isn’t going so well.
Earlier this week, before the politically catastrophic defeat of the GOP health care bill, former media mogul and now White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon tried to tell Republicans they had no choice but to vote for the bill.
“Guys, look,” Bannon said, according to Mike Allen of Axios. “This is not a discussion. This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill.”
Coming from someone with no political experience until nine weeks ago, this didn’t go over well with the congressmen in the room.
As the GOP attempts to save face in spite of the loss, reports are leaking of conflict between the House and the Executive | Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
“You know, the last time someone ordered me to something, I was 18 years old,” a member of the house reportedly replied. “And it was my daddy. And I didn’t listen to him, either.”
Trump would later go on to tweet that it would be ironic if the far-right Freedom Caucus opposed the bill, given that its members hate Planned Parenthood so much.
The irony is that the Freedom Caucus, which is very pro-life and against Planned Parenthood, allows P.P. to continue if they stop this plan!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 24, 2017
But it turns out public shaming doesn’t work as well off the campaign trail.
It appeared in November that since Republicans controlled the White House, Congress and the Senate, it would be easy to enact a legislative agenda.
But given that the Trump administration is zero for two on its major initiatives — having lost both of its first two attempts at the so-called Muslim ban as well as the long-promised Obamacare repeal — these failures don’t bode well for upcoming plans like tax reform or the fabled border wall.