U.S. Politics

The Memo: Winners and losers from the battle over health care

VIDEO

THE HILL

A week of high drama in Washington reached a stunning climax on Friday: President Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) decided to pull the Republican bill that had sought to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act rather than watch it go down to certain defeat.

There will be no second attempt anytime soon. Ryan said at a Capitol Hill news conference on Friday afternoon that the nation will “be living with ObamaCare for the foreseeable future.”

It’s an astonishing conclusion to one of the main fights that Republicans — including Trump — have sought for years.

As the dust settles, who are the biggest winners and losers?

LOSERS

President Trump

Make no mistake, this was a humiliating defeat for a president who campaigned as the ultimate deal-maker who could shake up a moribund Washington and get things done.

His big legislative push has fallen at the first hurdle. Trump himself was deeply engaged in trying to win over reluctant Republican lawmakers — and it didn’t work.

There are many unknowns: How will this affect other items on Trump’s agenda? How much frustration among grassroots Republican voters will be focused on him rather than Ryan or the GOP lawmakers who refused to get on board?

In remarks on Friday afternoon, Trump sought to put a brave face on the situation, avoiding lashing out at any Republicans and arguing that the Democrats would continue to “own” ObamaCare, to their political detriment.

But when Trump said, “There’s not much you can do about it,” referring to ObamaCare, it seemed an oddly impotent remark for a sitting president with majorities in both houses of Congress.

This is a very big setback for Trump. Just how big will become clear only after more time has passed.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)

Friday’s developments were at least as damaging for Ryan as they were for the president.

Whether the American Health Care Act would ultimately have been signed into law or not, the fact that Ryan could not get it through the House is deeply embarrassing for the Speaker.

Ryan’s fingerprints were all over the legislation, which faced immediate and fierce pushback from conservative members of his own conference as well as several important interest groups.

Some Trump loyalists contend that Ryan erred by focusing on healthcare rather than tax reform out of the gate. And conservative media commentators are openly questioning his leadership.

Trump publicly insists that he retains confidence in Ryan. But the Speaker went down to a big defeat that revealed an inability to muscle his members into line.

Vice President Pence, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, and Office of Management And Budget Director Mick Mulvaney

Pence, Price and Mulvaney were all once House members — in the case of the latter two, right up until they joined the Trump administration.

As such, the White House had suggested they would be especially effective in winning over members of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus and other lawmakers. Mulvaney was a founding member of the group.

When all’s said and done, the trio failed to round up the required votes. That’s a political black eye for all three men.

MIXED

The House Freedom Caucus

The conservative group won the battle — but the outcome of the broader war has yet to be decided.

The caucus, led by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), held the line in opposition to the bill, despite the urgings of Trump himself. More than any other Republican group, they were responsible for the failure of the legislation.

The whole episode showed the power of the Freedom Caucus, but its members will have to deal with the consequences too.

They defied a president of their own party who — for all his broader struggles with popularity — is fervently supported by many grassroots Republicans.

They sank an effort to replace a law that many of those grassroots voters detest.

And the realpolitik argument for their position — that they could force Trump and the House leadership to come back to the table with a proposal that was more attentive to their concerns, appears to have proven untrue.

WINNERS 

Former President Barack Obama

The bottom line is simple: Obama’s signature domestic achievement has survived – and at a moment when the White House, the Senate and the House are all controlled by people who have repeatedly pledged to destroy it.

Trump, speaking from the White House on Friday afternoon, insisted that the Affordable Care Act would explode under its own weight. But the current president did not make any pledge to renew his efforts to undo it, instead suggesting he would be open to some more incremental repairs in tandem with congressional Democrats.

Obama’s big law dodged a bullet here. And that strengthens his legacy as a president of considerable historical significance.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)

Pelosi displayed the kind of grip on her party colleagues that Ryan so signally failed to exhibit.

Not a single Democrat broke ranks to support the Republican proposal. The position may not have been that surprising. But it did ensure that Republicans faced the steepest possible gradient.

Pelosi, who loves the hand-to-hand political combat of Capitol Hill, clearly took some pleasure in the Republicans’ disarray.

When the vote was first postponed on Thursday, she told reporters, “Rookie’s error, Donald Trump.”

Jared Kushner

Trump’s son-in-law, among his most trusted advisers, was reportedly against the decision to move on healthcare from the get-go. But he was also out of Washington for much of the week, on a ski trip with his family in Aspen.

CNN reported that the president was displeased that Kushner was out of town.

But as someone who was physically and politically distant from the week’s messy horse-trading, he emerges relatively unscathed from the debacle.

Governors

Several GOP governors were critical of the replacement plan put forward by their colleagues in the House.

Ohio’s John Kasich, Nevada’s Brian Sandoval, Arkansas’ Asa Hutchinson and Michigan’s Rick Snyder wrote an open letter last week to Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stating that they could not support the legislation.

Their argument, in essence, was that the bill would have hit Medicaid too hard.

They gave political cover to lawmakers from their states who were also leaning against the legislation.

The AARP

The organization for older Americans lobbied vigorously against the law.

It attacked one proposed change as “an age tax,” emphasized that 24 million fewer people were projected to have health insurance after a decade, and declared the issue to be an “accountability vote” — in other words, one where it would use its muscle against lawmakers who voted against its wishes.

The association’s efforts were a reminder that it is not to be underestimated.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

U.S. Politics

THE MEMO: Five takeaways from Comey’s big day

THE HILL

Comey’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee had been eagerly awaited. It lived up to its billing.

Here are the key points as the dust settles.

Comey did real damage to Trump

The FBI director inflicted a double blow on President Trump early on in the hearing.

He first confirmed that the bureau is investigating links between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government.

And he stated flatly that he had “no information” to support the president’s assertion, first made on Twitter, that former President Barack Obama had wiretapped him at Trump Tower.

The media focus will next turn to whether the bureau will uncover evidence of outright collusion between Team Trump and Moscow.

On the accusation of wiretapping, Comey did not even provide a fig leaf for the White House. In addition to asserting that the FBI has no evidence to support the wiretapping charges, Comey noted, “The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components. The department has no information that supports those tweets.”

The one-two punch from the FBI director made for a rough day for Trump and his aides.

On Twitter, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough called it “the worst day of Donald Trump’s presidency.”

The White House was quick to create distance

White House press secretary Sean Spicer took to the lectern in the press briefing room in the afternoon as Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers were still testifying on Capitol Hill.

Spicer’s briefing was notable for the vigor with which he sought to put distance between the White House and the figures around whom speculation about Russian ties has swirled.

The effort was undermined, however, by Spicer’s insistence that one of those people, Paul Manafort, played “a very limited role” in Trump’s presidential bid.

In fact, Manafort became campaign chairman in May last year and effectively ran Trump’s campaign between June and August.

Spicer’s assertion drew negative comments from a number of prominent reporters, both on Twitter and on cable news, where the networks covered the events intensely throughout the day.

Spicer also took a verbal swing at “hangers-on around the campaign,” which appeared to be a reference to Carter Page, whose level of involvement with Team Trump remains unclear. Page, sometimes described as a campaign adviser on foreign policy, took a trip to Moscow last summer. Concrete details are scarce, and speculation is intense about that trip.

Trump loyalists have long been scathing about Page, but the push against Manafort — and to a more modest degree against controversial GOP consultant and longtime Trump friend Roger Stone — has only set the media’s antennae twitching with the sense that something big is around the corner.

Republicans want to make leaks the real story

While Democrats pushed their belief that there was something nefarious going on between the Trump campaign and Russia, Republicans stuck equally ferociously to insisting that people with access to classified information were leaking it to damage the new administration.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) was especially passionate on that topic. At one point, Gowdy appeared to suggest that reporters who published classified information should be prosecuted.

Even Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), who is generally seen as a more moderate figure than Gowdy, asserted, “I’ve never seen such a sustained period of leaks.”

Several Republican members of the panel seemed disquieted by how the controversy involving Michael Flynn came into the public domain. Flynn resigned after the shortest tenure ever as national security adviser when it emerged that he had misled Vice President Pence about the nature of phone conversations he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

More broadly, however, there seemed to be an attempt to bolster the White House narrative that there is a “deep state” working to undermine the president.

“The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information. Must find leaker now!” the president tweeted on Monday morning.

Comey won’t be easy to sully

The Trump administration can’t have been happy with Comey’s testimony, but so far it is resisting any impulse to go on an all-out attack against him.

The first question Spicer faced at his briefing — from Jonathan Karl of ABC News — was whether the president still had “complete confidence” in the FBI director.

“There’s no reason to believe he doesn’t at this time,” Spicer replied.

While hardly a rip-roaring endorsement, those words underline the trouble the White House faces.

Comey famously earned the ire of Democrats in the closing stretch of last year’s presidential campaign when he announced that the bureau was investigating newly discovered messages possibly related to its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of State.

Some in Clinton’s orbit believe Comey’s announcement cost her the election. Whether that is true or not, Team Trump would have a near-impossible task in trying paint Comey as biased against it.

The White House is under a cloud

Near the end of the day’s proceedings, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) told Comey he had put “a big gray cloud” over the White House.

Nunes, who worked on Trump’s transition team, appeared to be expressing dismay at that reality. But both parties would accept it as a fact.

The political dynamics have changed now that the FBI investigation is public knowledge.

The White House can expect to face questions on a daily basis about the probe, while the media attention on what Comey’s agents are finding, and about whom, will be feverish.

U.S. Politics

Suspense builds over FBI director hearing

FBI Director James Comey speaks at agency headquarters in Washington on March 25, 2015. (Associated Press) **FILE**

FBI Director James Comey speaks at agency headquarters in Washington on March 25, 2015. (Associated Press) 

THE HILL

BY KATIE BO WILLIAMS

FBI Director James Comey’s appearance Monday before the House committee investigating Russian interference in the election could put to the test a fragile truce between the panel’s top Republican and Democrat.

Comey and National Security Agency (NSA) head Adm. Michael Rogers are slated to testify in the House Intelligence Committee’s first open hearing in the probe — a hotly-anticipated panel that is expected to quickly divide members by party.
While it’s unclear how much the pair will be able to discuss openly, lawmakers are expected to be largely united in pushing the FBI director to resolve President Trump’s claim that he was “wiretapped” by his predecessor.
But deep divisions over evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia have some predicting the delicate alliance forged by the panel’s leaders – Reps. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) – may be at risk.
On the surface, the two California lawmakers appear to have little in common, other than a reported mutual regard for the Oakland Raiders.
Schiff represents suburban Los Angeles and is a soft-spoken former prosecutor who chooses his words carefully.
Nunes comes from a deeply agricultural background and is known for his sharp and often colorful criticism – even of his fellow Republicans.
In 2014, Nunes famously called Michigan Republican Justin Amash “al-Qaeda’s best friend in Congress” over his vote on a key surveillance bill.
In a sign of how tense the relationship had become in the early stages of their investigation, the two lawmakers gave dueling press conferences in the same afternoon in February, with Schiff taking the podium in a last-minute appearance to rebuke the chairman.
Nunes had told reporters that he saw no evidence of collusion between Trump associates and Moscow, saying, “what I’ve been told by many folks is that there’s nothing there.”
Schiff blasted the comments, suggesting the chairman was prejudging the results of the probe.
“When you begin an investigation, you don’t begin by stating what you believe to be the conclusion,” Schiff said.
Since then, Nunes and Schiff have appeared together at press conferences, standing stiffly at the podium, and have jointly signed onto requests for information from various agencies.
One of those joint requests, signed last week, effectively launched the exclusively Republican demand that the committee’s investigation include leaks of sensitive information to the media — an obvious point of compromise on the part of Democrats.
Still, Schiff has consistently said that if the majority party attempts to block important lines of inquiry in the investigation, he will not be shy about going public with his grievances.

“The only way our investigation will have credibility is if we can reach a common conclusion at the end of the day on the core issues,” he told reporters earlier this month.

“If we get to the point at any time where I feel we can’t do that, where there are legitimate lines of investigation that are being walled off, then I will say so.”

Democrats on the intelligence panel say that there are clear points of division that could fracture the relationship, raising a scenario where Republicans refuse to subpoena certain witnesses or stonewall demands for documents the minority considers essential to the investigation.
“Considering the political pressures, the relationship [between Nunes and Schiff] is very good and very functional,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said Friday. “Inside, behind closed doors, we’re not being told no. Next week could be different.”

A second committee Democrat echoed Himes, calling the director of the FBI and some former Obama officials also invited to testify an “easy ask” while saying that the Nunes-Schiff relationship will almost certainly “be tested” over future requests.
“Taxes,” he said, referring to calls from Democrats and some Republicans for Trump to release his tax returns for congressional inquiries related to Russia. “This will not to me be a complete investigation unless we see his taxes.”

Schiff was more circumspect when asked if Trump’s taxes were necessary to the probe, telling reporters, “I think we have a lot of groundwork to do before we ever get to that question.”

Lawmakers are also eyeing former national security advisor Michael Flynn as another potential point of conflict.

Flynn was forced to resign last month after media reports revealed he had misled Vice President Pence and other senior officials about the discussion of U.S. sanctions in a December phone call with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Nunes has defended the former intelligence officer, arguing that the U.S. surveillance that exposed the contents of his call to Kislyak is the graver concern than the call itself. But Schiff has said it is his “expectation” that Flynn will testify.

“If we can’t bring Flynn in, this investigation is going nowhere,” said the committee Democrat who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Democrats are also deeply skeptical of Nunes’ public relationship to Trump.
He served on the executive committee for Trump’s transition team and in February agreed to a White House request that he rebut a media report linking Trump associates to Moscow, which came as the committee’s investigation was already underway.
“A lot of us have had concerns with some of the chairman’s comments that he may not be looking at this in an objective fashion,” Himes said.
Nunes flatly denied any tension between himself and the vice chair on Friday, describing the relationship as “good.”

“There’s no issue,” he told reporters. “I think you guys like to write about that, but I don’t think there’s any competing issue.”

Monday’s hearing is at least initially expected to become a referendum on Trump’s claim that former President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Both Nunes and Schiff have said that they have seen no evidence to substantiate the president’s allegation, with Nunes calling any literal interpretation of Trump’s tweets with the allegation early this month “wrong.”
Separate from that issue, lawmakers appear poised to take the panel in separate directions.
Democrats are expected to push for evidence of any connection between Trump campaign associates and Moscow — and demand to know whether Comey is investigating those reported links.
Republicans, meanwhile, will seek to reconstruct the original hack of the Democratic National Committee last year and ferret out the source of a series of media leaks like the one linked to Flynn.
It’s also unclear how much Comey and Rogers will be able to discuss in the open setting, leaving open the possibility that many of the answers to lawmakers’ more substantive questions will need to take place behind closed doors.
“I am concerned that this hearing will not be quite as instructive as a lot of us and a lot of Americans would want because so much of the information lives in a classified world,” Himes said.
U.S. Politics

Report: Obama was furious after Trump accused him of wiretapping

Report: Obama was furious after Trump accused him of wiretapping

© Getty Images

THE HILL

Former President Obama was reportedly furious after President Trump fired off tweets accusing him of wiretapping Trump Tower before the presidential election, according to a new report.

An aide to Obama told the Wall Street Journal the former president had decided he would not respond to every one of the his successor’s tweets. But people familiar with Obama’s thinking told the WSJ he was livid after Trump posted several tweets early Saturday morning making serious accusations.

“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” Trump first tweeted on Saturday, without evidence.

An Obama spokesman later responded:

“A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice,” said Kevin Lewis. “As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.”

Trump’s allegations have widened a rift between Trump and his predecessor, according to the report, who made an effort to be cordial during the transition.

Trump also reportedly believes that officials loyal to Obama have been behind the leaks coming out of the administration.

Christopher Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax Media and a friend of the president, told the Wall Street Journal that “Trump’s people think Obama is at war with them.”

He reiterated the idea that allies of president Obama were behind “a lot of the problems.”

“This president has been under siege since Day One from both the press and Obama loyalists and he’s reacting to it,” Ruddy said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that Obama loyalists inside the administration and outside are giving Donald Trump a lot of grief and a lot of problems.”

BY PAULINA FIROZI

U.S. Politics

Publisher Announces Books By The Obamas Are Officially On The Way

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 18: (AFP OUT) President Barack Obama speaks, as First Lady Michelle Obama listens, at a reception for Black History Month, in the East Room of the White House, February 18, 2016, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mike Theiler-Pool/Getty Images)

Mike Theiler-Pool/Getty Images

ADDICTING INFO

Penguin Random House announced on Tuesday night that Barack and Michelle Obama have both signed book deals with the publisher. According to the statement, the former president and former first lady will each be authoring a book in the near future.

“Penguin Random House is pleased to announce that it will publish forthcoming books by former President of the United States Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama. Oenguin Random House CEO MArkus Dohle announced today that the company has acquired world publication rights for two books, to be written by President and Mrs. Obama respectively.”

“Penguin Random House is pleased to announce that it will publish forthcoming books by former President of the United States Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama. Oenguin Random House CEO MArkus Dohle announced today that the company has acquired world publication rights for two books, to be written by President and Mrs. Obama respectively.”

The statement did not disclose an actual dollar amount for these deals, but according to a report in Financial Times, bids on their books had reached more than $60 million. If accurate, this would blow away the price tag attached to the memoirs of other recent presidents. Bill Clinton got $15 million for his book My Life and George W Bush made approximately $10 million from his book Decision Points.

The announcement did say that “in support of the mission of The Obama Foundation and Penguin Random House’s own commitment to social responsibility, the company will donate one million books in the Obama family’s name to First Book.”

The First Book program strives to “promote equal access to education by providing new books, learning materials, and other essentials to children in need.”

In addition, “the Obamas also plan to donate a significant portion of their author proceeds to charity.”

“We are absolutely thrilled to continue our publishing partnership with President and Mrs. Obama,” Dohle said. “With their words and their leadership, they changed the world, and every day, with the books we publish at Penguin Random House, we strive to do the same. Now, we are very much looking forward to working together with President and Mrs. Obama to make each of their books global publishing events of unprecedented scope and significance.”

This is not the first time the former president has worked with the publisher. CNN points out that Penguin Random House has published Obama’s past books, “so the new deal continues a two-decade-long relationship.”

The hefty figures quoted in the bids for their books clearly demonstrate the expectation that these books are going to be huge best sellers. Personally, I have only one question: Where can I place a pre-order?

April Hamlin

U.S. Politics

Donald Trump believes Obama behind White House leaks plaguing his administration

DAILY NEWS

Barack Obama is no longer in the White House, but Donald Trump thinks the ex-president may still be calling some shots.

President Trump believes Obama is behind the many leaks within his administration and responsible for the angry Americans confronting Republicans at town hall meetings around the country.

“I think that President Obama is behind it because his people are certainly behind it,” Trump said in a clip of a Fox & Friends interview to air Tuesday.

“And some of the leaks possibly come from that group, which are really serious because they are very bad in terms of national security. But … in terms of him being behind things, that’s politics. And it will probably continue,” Trump said in the clip, released Monday night by CNN.

The Fox & Friends interviewer also asked Trump if he felt Obama was stirring up the irate crowds and Republican gatherings.

Trump was asked in an interview on Fox News’ “Fox and Friends” if he believed Obama was responsible for the town hall protests against Republicans this month.

ALTERNATIVE CROP
President Trump believes Obama is behind the many leaks within his administration and responsible for the angry Americans confronting Republicans at town hall meetings | (JIM WATSON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

“It turns out his organization seems to do a lot of these organizing to some of the protests that these Republicans are seeing around the country against you. Do you believe President Obama is behind it and if he is, is that a violation of the so-called unsaid presidents’ code?” the Fox journalist asked.

“I think he is behind it. I also think it is politics, that’s the way it is,” Trump replied.

One group that was formed out of Obama’s campaign has been part of a grassroots effort to organize around GOP town halls, CNN noted.

Organizing for Action has been working with Service Employees International Union, MoveOn.org and the Center for American Progress to teach Americans how to protest Republican political agendas.

Ginger Adams Otis

U.S. Politics

Trump’s Approval Rating Tumbles To All-Time Low In Latest Gallup Poll

Trump’s Approval Rating Tumbles To All-Time Low In Latest Gallup Poll

POLITICUS USA

The new data comes days after Trump took aim at the polls, calling them “fake news” if they find that he or his policies are unpopular.

poll-2-12

According to the poll, just 41 percent of Americans think the new president is doing a good job. A majority – 53 percent – say he’s doing a pretty terrible job as the nation’s 45th president.

His approval marks are worse than George W. Bush’s right after Hurricane Katrina and well below the 48 percent approval rating Barack Obama averaged throughout his successful two-term presidency.

The new data comes days after Trump took aim at polls, calling them “fake news” if they find that he or his policies are unpopular.

While Trump – and many of his supporters – like to dismiss any bad poll number or news story about him as “fake,” there is no doubting that the new president is already deeply unpopular. This isn’t a new phenomenon either; he’s never been seen very positively by the American people.

The fact that his brief time in the White House has been nothing short of a trainwreck – from threatening our allies with military action and wreaking havoc on America’s airports to nominating unqualified cabinet members and throwing a stunning number of Twitter tirades – makes it no surprise that Trump’s approval ratings are continuing to fall to levels never seen by a new president.

In his first three weeks, he has discredited his supporters who told us to give him a chance (“He may surprise us!”) and validated those who said he wasn’t temperamentally fit to be commander-in-chief. Trump just isn’t very good at being president – and the American people know that.

There is nothing fake about it.

U.S. Politics

Report: Manafort part of intelligence review of intercepted Russian communications

Report: Manafort part of intelligence review of intercepted Russian communications

Getty Images

THE HILL

American intelligence and law enforcement agencies are looking at intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of an investigation into possible ties between Donald Trump’s associates and the Kremlin, the New York Times reports.

The report, published less than 24 hours before Trump is inaugurated, is reportedly focused on examining the business dealings that some of Trump’s closest confidants and operatives have had in Russia, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, already the subject of an FBI inquiry into his dealings in Russia and Ukraine.

At least two other campaign advisors, Carter Page and Roger Stone, are also being examined, according to The Times report.

The investigation is being conducted by the FBI, the National Security Agency, the CIA and the financial crimes unit of the Treasury Department. But it is unclear whether the intercepted communications had anything to do with Trump or his campaign, the Times noted. It’s also unclear whether it is related to the investigation into hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Russian attempts to interfere with the election.

Manafort told The Times that he has never had any interaction with the Russian government and called the allegations “a Democratic Party dirty trick and completely false.”

Trump has repeatedly disputed that the Kremlin tried to influence the 2016 presidential election in his favor, despite overwhelming agreement by the U.S. intelligence community on that point.

The counterintelligence investigation is not tied to an unverified 35-page dossier that’s said to show Russia has compromising information on Trump. That dossier — the subject of another FBI probe — became the subject of news reports earlier this month, when CNN reported that Trump and outgoing President Barack Obama were briefed on a summary of the memos.

MAX GREENWOOD

U.S. Politics

John Kerry plays Eisenhower: A farewell address dispenses hard truths, a little too late

SALON

Kerry delivers tough love on the death of the two-state solution — too bad this didn’t happen years ago

Now he tells us – just as he’s leaving power.

In his gloves-off warning about Israeli settlements, Secretary of State John Kerry evoked his inner Dwight D. Eisenhower, speaking hard truths about a monumental global crisis, just before stepping down from office.

In January 1961, President Eisenhower warned of the “unwarranted influence” and “potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power” by the “military-industrial complex.” It was a powerful and prophetic warning, one which, if issued years earlier, might have empowered Ike to confront the issue directly. But three days after giving that speech, he was no longer president.

Now comes Kerry, on the heels of a rare U.S. abstention from the United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s West Bank settlements. Without the usual U.S. veto, the resolution passed, further isolating Israel internationally and evoking the fury of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called the U.S. abstention “shameful” and “underhanded.”

In his speech five days after the U.N. vote, Kerry repeatedly decried Israel’s occupation, its “web” of military checkpoints that severely restrict the movements of ordinary Palestinians, and most of all Israel’s incessant building of settlements. “Settlement expansion and the seemingly endless occupation,” Kerry said, “are combining to destroy hopes for peace on both sides and increasingly cementing an irreversible one-state reality.”

But Kerry, like Ike, is coming late to the truth-telling.

Without a doubt, the secretary spoke bluntly. He declared that “the settler agenda is defining the future of Israel,” making “a contiguous Palestinian state impossible.” He even evoked the Palestinian “Nakba,” or catastrophe, when some 750,000 Palestinians were dispossessed and forced into exile during the creation of Israel in 1948.

But words only go so far. Kerry had four years, and the Obama administration eight, to go beyond eloquent speeches and diplomatic cajoling to apply direct economic and political pressure on Israel to stop settlement construction. The last time that happened was in 1992, during the first Bush administration, when Secretary of State James Baker threatened to withhold funds unless Israel stopped building settlements on Palestinian land. “The choice is Israel’s,” Baker asserted, making clear the difference between the superpower and the client state.

Since September 1993, when Bill Clinton rang in the Oslo Accords with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, no U.S. administration has brought such pressure to bear. Facing no genuine consequences, Israel has continued to entice Israelis, with major state subsidies, to settle on Palestinian land in the West Bank — from  109,000 settlers in 1993 to more than 400,000 today. That doesn’t include East Jerusalem, where some 17 Jewish settlements now surround Palestinian neighborhoods, all but cutting them off from the West Bank and putting a dagger into hopes that East Jerusalem can be the capital of an independent Palestinian state.

Thus the Oslo “peace process,” ostensibly created to birth a two-state solution, has instead facilitated its destruction. The U.S. has been directly complicit in that deed. Its enabling of an out-of-control ally — underscored by the recent 10-year, $38 billion military aid package to Israel — created the “one-state reality” that Secretary Kerry so eloquently decries.

That reality is clear to anyone who has traveled to the Holy Land in recent years. I’ve been there some 15 times since 1994, and I’ve watched as lines of settlements connect to confine the Palestinian population into an archipelago of ever-shrinking enclaves, isolated from each other and controlled by nearly 500 checkpoints, roadblocks and other “closure obstacles” — this in a West Bank the size of Delaware, our second-smallest state. The occupation, which will mark its 50th anniversary next June, has deeply scarred generations of Palestinians, humiliating adults and children alike with body searches and endless delays as people attempt to reach work, school and family in nearby yet increasingly unreachable towns.

While some of this is reversible — checkpoints can be taken down — the settlement and accompanying military infrastructure, which divides Palestine from itself, is massive and entrenched.

How unhelpful it was, then, that in his speech this week, Kerry continued to prop up the zombie known as the two-state solution. Yet in 2013 he warned that “the window for a two-state solution is shutting,” adding that the window would be open for two years at the most, “or it’s over.” In other words, by Kerry’s own estimation, the two-state solution died in 2015. In its parting shot at the extremist Netanyahu government, the Obama administration is thus pleading for a “solution” it must know is no longer possible.

When Kerry this week warned of “segregated enclaves in the middle of the West Bank with no real political rights; separate legal, education and transportation systems; vast income disparities, under a permanent military occupation that deprives [Palestinians] of the most basic freedoms,” he was in fact speaking of the present, not some future reality. “Separate and unequal” is not “what you would have,” as Kerry said, but what we do have.

The potential irony of American extremists overseeing Middle East policy in a Donald Trump administration is that finally the single-state, Jim Crow reality will be clear. Trump’s selection for U.S. ambassador to Israel, bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, is deeply entrenched in Israel’s settler movement. Trump also suggested that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, could have a major role in future “peacemaking” efforts. Kushner, a real estate broker with zero diplomatic experience, has arranged meetings between Trump and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a champion of the settler movement. All favor moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a direct attack on Palestinian aspirations to make East Jerusalem the capital of its sovereign state.

These moves, along with Israel’s promised settlement expansion, are direct attacks on the longstanding U.S. policy of two states standing side by side in peace. Destructive as they are, they help clarify that the reality on the ground is a single, apartheid-like state with perpetual Israeli occupation and dominance over Palestinian lives.

“If no Palestinian state, & no equal rights,” tweeted Matt Duss, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, “then it’s apartheid. Let’s have that discussion.”

With the two-state myth shattered, a new solution based on justice and equal rights — fueled by nonviolent actions such as boycotts, Palestinian petitions to the International Criminal Court in the Hague and continued international isolation of Israel — can finally emerge as widely accepted next steps. A just resolution will likely never involve a Trump or Netanyahu government, but perhaps, in the not too distant future, history will pass them by.

U.S. Politics

Trump Issues Weak Statement After Obama Reminds Russia That He’s Still President

Trump Issues Weak Statement After Obama Reminds Russia That He’s Still President

Trump’s response suggests that holding Russia accountable for its unprecedented election meddling isn’t that high on his list of priorities.

POLITICUS USA

President-Elect Donald Trump issued an official statement on Thursday after the Obama administration announced harsh retaliatory measures against Russia for its hacking of the 2016 election.

Despite both parties joining hands to strongly condemn Russia’s interference and support President Obama’s tough actions, Trump’s response was short and weak – and it didn’t even explicitly mention the Russian cyberattack.

The full statement:

It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things. Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.

It’s clear that Trump cares very little about Russia’s attack on the U.S. – probably because it helped put him in the White House – but he also isn’t even bothering to get “updated on the facts” until next week.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration and members of both political parties are treating the matter with the seriousness that it deserves.

As the New York Times noted Thursday, Obama’s counter-punch represents the strongest ever U.S. response to a state-sponsored cyber attack. The administration ordered 35 Russian intelligence diplomats to leave the country and imposed harsh sanctions on two Russian intelligence services and four top officers.

Trump’s statement on Thursday suggests that holding Russia accountable for its unprecedented election meddling isn’t that high on his list of priorities. His response echoes his earlier statement on Wednesday from his Mar-a-Lago hideout, when he said it’s “time for our country to move on.”

Starting Jan. 20, we will have an American president that will be a dream come true for Vladimir Putin – a man who will simply “move on” when our country comes under attack from a foreign government.

Until then, President Obama is reminding the Russian government that, at least until next month, he’s still president and they will face harsh consequences.