U.S. Politics

The mind-boggling past 24 hours in politics, explained

Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty

VOX

Russia revelations. Health bill woes. Wiretap wars. And that Supreme Court seat.

Donald Trump’s presidency has reached a new level of chaos, somehow.

Last night, CNN reported that the FBI “has information that indicates” Trump’s associates communicated with Russian operatives, “possibly” to coordinate the release of information damaging to his opponent’s campaign.

That’s just days after the FBI director revealed, in congressional testimony, that he was investigating whether the president’s associates colluded with Russia to interfere with last year’s election — publicly confirming something we knew of only from anonymously sourced news reports.

Meanwhile, House Republicans are continuing to barrel toward a Thursday vote on a comprehensive health reform bill that was crafted in secret and released just weeks ago. They don’t yet have the votes, but are desperately trying to win over enough wavering conservatives and moderates to ram this bill through — which could have immense consequences for millions of Americans.

As all this continues to unfold, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee is claiming that US intelligence agencies in the previous administration intercepted some communications of people involved in the president-elect’s transition.

And somehow, the president’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, continues to sail toward confirmation, with some Senate Democrats reportedly weighing some sort of deal with Republicans to let him through. Gorsuch is young enough that he could conceivably sit on the Court for decades and be one of Trump’s most important legacies.

So there’s a lot going on. Here’s the context you need to understand what’s new and important on each of these topics.

The FBI investigation revelation

The background: Before this week, the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was a shadowy thing. There had been many anonymously sourced news reports asserting that such an investigation existed and that it may be looking at some of Trump’s associates. But some of those reports conflicted on the question of how serious the investigation was. There was no public confirmation. It was hard to tell whether all this really amounted to anything.

Then on Monday, FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress that the bureau was in fact “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts” to interfere with the 2016 election. This confirmed that the investigation was a) real, and b) looking squarely at the Trump campaign and its associates.

The news: On Wednesday night, we learned more on just what, exactly, has caught the FBI’s interest. According to a bombshell CNN report, the bureau “has information that indicates” Trump associates “communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”

This information “includes human intelligence, travel, business and phone records and accounts of in-person meetings,” per anonymous US officials interviewed by CNN.

Why it matters: This is a step beyond any claim we’ve seen before about the investigation. Previous reports suggested the FBI was looking at the general topic of Trump associate contacts with Russia, but it wasn’t really clear whether they had found much of substance. But this story claims they do have at least some information suggesting there was shady communication and coordination afoot (though the story cautions this information isn’t “conclusive”).

Furthermore, when the story discusses “information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign,” it’s almost surely referring to the hacked email dumps that dogged Democrats last year — most prominently, the public releases of internal Democratic National Committee emails in July and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s emails in October by WikiLeaks. (US intelligence agencies have attributed these hacks to Russian-aligned actors.)

Though these email dumps likely didn’t swing the outcome of the election (there’s a better case that Comey’s letter on Clinton emails did), they did seem extremely well-timed for Trump. The DNC emails were released just in time to cause tension between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention. Podesta’s emails came out as an “October surprise” when Trump was trailing badly in the polls. Did Trump’s campaign or his associates have a role in this timing? That is, apparently, what the FBI is looking into.

The health care fight in the House

Speaker Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Group/Getty

The background: House Republican leaders are struggling to come up with the votes to pass the American Health Care Act, their bill to repeal and replace Obamacare.

The bill’s final form still appears to be in flux, but among other things it would replace Obamacare’s income-adjusted subsidies to buy insurance on individual marketplaces with a flat and overall less generous tax credit. It would overhaul and dramatically cut Medicaid. And it would slash some taxes that only hit the wealthy. The Congressional Budget Office estimated its enactment would lead to 24 million more people becoming uninsured by 2026.

Republicans have had a tough time coming up with the votes, because they’re trying to appease two groups with very different demands.

  • Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus have long and loudly condemned the bill for keeping too much of Obamacare in place. They’re backed by anti-government-spending groups including Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, and the Koch brothers’ Freedom Partners.
  • Other Republicans (I call them the Coverage Caucus) have more gradually come out against the bill because they fear it would negatively impact their constituents. They’re backed by the AARP, the American Hospital Association, and other groups.

Since no Democrats are expected to back the effort in the House, Paul Ryan can only afford to lose 22 Republicans — or else the bill would fail.

The news: In an attempt to win over enough Freedom Caucus members, Republican leaders are considering major changes to the health bill. These changes reportedly include dropping the “essential health benefits” requirement which lays out 10 benefits insurance plans for the individual markets or offered by small businesses must cover. As Dylan Matthews explains:

These provisions set a baseline, mandating that all offered plans meet a certain threshold. They can’t skimp out and not cover big things like emergency room visits or pregnancy or mental health. Particularly for previously undercovered areas like mental health and addiction services, which plans didn’t have to cover before the ACA, this provision was a huge deal.

But many free market conservatives hate this provision, because it runs counter to the goal of having wide consumer choice among different kinds of health plans offering different types of procedures. They note that this drives up the cost of insurance, and insist that people should have the chance to buy less protective plans that are cheaper.

President Trump will meet with Freedom Caucus members Thursday morning to try to cut this deal, but it’s unclear whether this will prove so controversial that it drives away many more members of the Coverage Caucus.

Why it matters: Well, in addition to potentially affecting (or ending) millions of people’s health coverage, the outcome of these negotiations could determine whether this bill passes the House or fails — though it should be noted that the AHCA will face towering difficulties getting through the Senate, considering it’s been trashed by so many Republican senators.

The wiretapping drama

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA).
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty

The background: Back on March 3, President Trump sent out a series of early-morning tweets claiming, with no evidence, that Barack Obama wiretapped his phones at Trump Tower back during the presidential campaign. It eventually emerged that Trump’s apparent source was a sketchily sourced article from a right-wing news site that had been read out on television.

The claims, it now seems clear, were false. Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers both bluntly rebutted them in their congressional testimony Monday, saying they’d seen no information to back up Trump’s tweets. Leading Republicans in Congress briefed by the intelligence agencies also said they’d heard nothing to back up Trump’s accusations.

But while the Obama-ordered tap of Donald Trump at Trump Tower clearly seems not to exist, it is quite plausible that some of Trump’s aides or associates were being monitored — perhaps because of that pesky FBI investigation into their contacts with Russia — or that their communications were picked up because foreigners communicating with them were themselves being tapped.

The news: On Wednesday, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, held a surprise press conference in which he claimed to have new wiretapping news.

“On numerous occasions, the intelligence community incidentally collected information about US citizens involved in the Trump transition,” Nunes said.

Shortly afterward, President Trump claimed that he had been “somewhat” vindicated by Nunes’s announcement. “So that means I’m right,” he proclaimed in a Time interview with Michael Scherer.

What it means: It does not mean Trump was right. Looking at the specific words Nunes used, what seems to have happened is that “the US intelligence community, during legally authorized surveillance of foreign nationals, picked up communications between members of Trump’s campaign” and some foreign nationals, as Zack Beauchamp writes.

That is, the foreigners talking to Trump’s people were tapped, not Trump’s people themselves.

Now, Nunes also raised questions about whether the information picked up in those taps was too “widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting” considering its actual value, which is a separate matter.

But there are questions about Nunes’s conduct too. He’s tasked with leading the House’s investigation on this matter, so it’s unclear why, when informed of this, he went public so quickly, why he didn’t tell his House Democratic counterpart, and why he went off to the White House to talk to Trump about an investigation that may implicate his associates. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) called this “very disturbing” behavior that compromised Nunes’s “credibility.”

Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing

Neil Gorsuch.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty

The background: Rather than going outside the box for his Supreme Court choice, Trump picked Neil Gorsuch, a circuit judge well respected in the conservative legal community. Gorsuch appears to have support from a majority of senators, so the main political drama with his hearing is whether Democrats try to filibuster his nomination. If they do so, Republicans are expected to change Senate rules to ram him through.

The news: Gorsuch finished 20 hours of Senate testimony yesterday, and the New York Times has a rundown of what Gorsuch said here — essentially, he was really vague, and nothing stood out as a major gaffe or revelation.

The real news was that, per Politico’s Burgess Everett, some Democratic senators are considering trying to cut some kind of deal with Republicans to let Gorsuch through without a Senate rules change. What they’d hope to get in exchange is a commitment that Republicans wouldn’t change the rules to ram through any other Supreme Court nominations in Trump’s term.

Why it matters: Though important, Gorsuch’s nomination would restore the Supreme Court to its status quo as it existed before Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016. That’s something many Democrats feel they can live with.

But if Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or Stephen Breyer were to step down or die during Trump’s presidency, the next justice could move the Court sharply to the right if confirmed — putting liberal precedents like Roe v. Wade at stake. So some Democrats are hoping to do whatever they can to try to ensure a more mainstream nominee gets picked for the next vacancy, even if it means letting Gorsuch through.

Still, the idea of letting Trump’s Supreme Court nominee through may prove too much for the liberal base to bear, particularly after Republicans refused to even consider President Obama’s nominee for this very seat, Merrick Garland. So this could get messy.

U.S. Politics

‘There’s a Smell of Treason in the Air’

FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers appear in front of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Monday, March 20, 2017  (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

MOYERS & COMPANY

FBI and NSA chiefs verify a Russia probe and refute the president’s claims as Republicans scramble to pretend the “drip, drip, drip” hasn’t started.

Monday’s hearing of the House Intelligence Committee was proof positive of the absolute need for both a special prosecutor and an independent, bipartisan commission with subpoena power to conduct a full investigation of the Trump campaign’s connections with Russian intelligence — as well as Russia’s multi-pronged attack on our elections and Trump’s business connections with that country’s oligarchs.

(Note that there was agreement that leaks are illegal but no one mentioned that it’s the media’s complete and constitutionally guaranteed right to report on them. Nor was anyone asked how many times GOP members of the committee have done their own leaking.)

Trump did what he could to distract as well, firing a volley of five heated early-morning tweets just before testimony began, reiterating claims that disgruntled Democrats manufactured charges about Russia’s involvement in the election and contact with Trump aides. There were more during the hearing itself — from Trump or someone at the White House tweeting in his name — twisting the day’s testimony by Comey and National

Security Agency chief Mike Rogers. Bizarrely, the two men then were placed in the position of having to rebut Trump’s allegations while they still were in the witness seats, correcting and putting the president in his place — virtually in real time.

Not only did Comey verify that the FBI was actively investigating Trump and his associates, he also flatly denied on behalf of his agency and the Justice Department that prior to January’s inauguration now-former President Obama had ordered eavesdropping on Trump Tower. Under normal circumstances this would seem to neutralize yet another of Trump’s wacky tweet storms, this one from two weeks ago, but as we’ve learned so well, the truth has never been a barrier to the social media madness of King Donald I.

And yet, as presidential historian Douglas Brinkley told The Washington Post, “There’s a smell of treason in the air. Imagine if J. Edgar Hoover or any other FBI director would have testified against a sitting president? It would have been a mindboggling event.”

But here we are, adrift in a Cloud Cuckoo Land of prevarication and incompetence in which little seems capable of boggling or driving our minds agog these days and where the truth shall not set you free but subject you to ridicule from the rabid trolls of the right.

And still there is hope. Even though neither Comey nor Rogers would reveal much of what they are discovering — continually citing the confidentiality they said was necessary to an ongoing investigation — the questions asked, despite the “no comment” answers, suggested ongoing areas of inquiry not only for investigating committees but also for the press.

For it is the free and independent media that continue to provide our clearest window into the extent of the investigation and the possible interface among the Trump campaign, Russia and the right. Late Monday, for example, McClatchy News reported:

“Federal investigators are examining whether far-right news sites played any role last year in a Russian cyber operation that dramatically widened the reach of news stories — some fictional — that favored Donald Trump’s presidential bid, two people familiar with the inquiry say.

“Operatives for Russia appear to have strategically timed the computer commands, known as ‘bots,’ to blitz social media with links to the pro-Trump stories at times when the billionaire businessman was on the defensive in his race against Democrat Hillary Clinton, these sources said.”

McClatchy reports that most of the stories were linked from social media posts and many of them connected to stories at Breitbart and Alex Jones’ InfoWars, as well as Russia Today and Sputnik News:

“Investigators examining the bot attacks are exploring whether the far-right news operations took any actions to assist Russia’s operatives. Their participation, however, wasn’t necessary for the bots to amplify their news through Twitter and Facebook.”

The spin machines are twirling at cyclonic speeds as the White House and the Republican Party counterattack or try to act as if none of this is happening. Like the refugee couple in Casablanca, they pretend to hear very little and understand even less. At the end of Monday’s testimony, intelligence committee chair Nunes actually told David Corn of Mother Jones that he had never heard of Roger Stone or Carter Page, two of the Trump/Russia story’s most prominent and tawdry players. Ingenuous or ignorant? You be the judge.

“Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence?” Adam Schiff asked at Monday’s hearing.

“Yes, it is possible. But it is also possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated, and that the Russians use the same techniques to corrupt US persons that they employed in Europe and elsewhere. We simply don’t know. Not yet. And we owe it to the country to find out.”

During Schiff’s questioning on Monday, Comey seemed to nod toward agreeing that Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee was not unlike the 1972 physical break-in at the DNC. You know, the one that precipitated the revelations, resignations and prison convictions of Watergate. Drip, drip, drip…

MICHAEL WINSHIP

U.S. Politics

CNN reports FBI may have proof of collusion between Russia and Trump campaign

GettyImages-577706376attribution: GETTY IMAGES

DAILY KOS

And here’s why Republicans really spent the day in a high state of panic.

The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, US officials told CNN.

On Monday, many Republicans were behaving as if they expected FBI Director Comey to vindicate Donald Trump, if not on the wiretapping tweets, then at least on the idea that there was an active investigation of connections between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence. Instead Comey confirmed that there was such an investigation. Since then, we’ve learned that there may be multiple investigations that link into the Trump campaign, as well as criminal investigations of activity going on in Trump Tower.

And just two days later, we’re near the point of something absolutely massive.

The FBI is now reviewing that information, which includes human intelligence, travel, business and phone records and accounts of in-person meetings, according to those U.S. officials. The information is raising the suspicions of FBI counterintelligence investigators that the coordination may have taken place, though officials cautioned that the information was not conclusive and that the investigation is ongoing.

What’s in question here isn’t Trump’s ties to Russian oligarchs—we already know those are true. It’s not Paul Manafort’s schemes in Ukraine, or Michael Flynn chatting with the Russian ambassador over sanctions. This is the possibility of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian agencies working to subvert the US election. Treason is not too big a word.

One law enforcement official said the information in hand suggests “people connected to the campaign were in contact and it appeared they were giving the thumbs up to release information when it was ready.”
U.S. Politics

Top Republican runs to White House to share leaked intelligence; it’s time for a special prosecutor

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attribution: Getty Images

DAILY KOS

The state of the so-called House investigation into state-sponsored Russian attacks on the 2016 elections—and possible collusion from the Republican presidential campaign—just took a hell of a turn, as the House Republican who supposedly is leading that investigation just announced he was headed to the White House to brief the targets of that investigation on incendiary new details about the state of the investigation against them.

Members of the Donald Trump transition team, possibly including Trump himself, were under U.S. government surveillance following November’s presidential election, House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) told reporters Wednesday.

To sum up, Rep. Devin Nunes—who was himself an executive member of Trump’s transition team during the period in question—says he was tipped off that the U.S. counterintelligence investigation had resulted in “incidental” collection of conversations of Trump staffers during the transition, possibly including Trump himself. This was, Nunes himself asserted, apparently legal; under FISA rules, this would generally have occurred if those staffers were in communication, “incidental” or otherwise, with foreign targets of an investigation.

Nunes did not share this information with Democratic members of his committee, but instead announced that he will be heading to the White House to brief the administration directly on these new details about … the investigation against them.

He appears to believe that the news that U.S. investigations meant to gather information on foreign intelligence efforts have discovered links to multiple members of the campaign, possibly including Trump himself, is somehow good news for Trump. Or perhaps he’s just publicly announcing those details and briefing Trump’s team on them for other reasons.

__________________

Again, Rep. Nunes is allegedly the person leading the House investigation on Russian acts during the election and, as confirmed by FBI Director James Comey during a recent hearing, possible Republican campaign collusion with those acts. And immediately after being tipped off to new information about potential ties to foreign agents and the Trump campaign, he’s meeting at the White House to let them know the information leaked to him.

Simply calling for an independent, non-partisan investigation into the election at this point seems almost beside the point. Trump transition member Nunes continues to work to sabotage the work of the investigators; he may be at this point a target of the investigation himself.

TRUMP-NUNES
U.S. Politics

Nixon’s Counsel During Watergate CALLS OUT Trump Administration: They’re ‘In Cover-Up Mode’

Nixon’s Counsel During Watergate CALLS OUT Trump Administration: They’re ‘In Cover-Up Mode’

Win McNamee/Getty Images

ADDICTING INFO

The man who served as White House Counsel to former President Richard Nixon during Watergate (and ended up facing charges for helping to it cover up) is weighing in on Donald Trump’s ongoing scandal with Russia. His opinion? Trump’s administration is “in cover-up mode.”

John Dean sat down for an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Monday night and his summation of Trump’s current situation was clear when Hayes asked about Trump’s shady ties to Russia and his bogus wiretapping claims.

“In fact [the White House] is in cover-up mode,” Dean replied.

On Monday, FBI Director James Comey testified before the House Intelligence Committee and he confirmed that the bureau is indeed investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. He also said that the FBI is investigating the possibility that Trump and his campaign colluded with Russia.

In addition, Comey said during the hearing that the Justice Department has absolutely no evidence to support Trump’s claim that former President Obama had the phones at Trump Tower tapped.

According to Dean, Trump’s desperate attempts to distance himself from Comey’s testimony is highly suggestive of a “cover- up.”

“There’s just never been any question in my mind about that. I’ve been inside a cover-up. I know how they look and feel. And every signal they’re sending is: ‘We’re covering this thing up,’” Dean said.

“Experienced investigators know this. They know how people react when they’re being pursued, and this White House is not showing their innocence, they’re showing how damn guilty they are, is what we’re seeing.”

During the Watergate scandal, Dean ended up charged with obstruction of justice. Trump, he said, is well on his way to committing the same crime.

“There’s also the question of whether this White House will obstruct, essentially, an investigation. You now have the head of the FBI with a target painted on its back, the front-line investigators with targets painted on their backs; you have a U.S. attorney the president said he was going to retain who has been summarily fired in Preet Bharara, and it strikes me that there is in some ways a kind of obstruction land mine … that the entirety of the White House now has to tip-toe through,” Dean said.

Trump had personally promised Bharara that he would be keeping his job, then last week he changed his mind and fired him without warning. Bharara just happened to be investigating Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price (among other things), but of course, this had absolutely nothing to do with Trump suddenly deciding to give him the boot. (Insert sarcasm here.)

Trump’s Russia problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Like with Watergate, it is just a matter of time until the truth comes out and Trump’s dirty deeds blow up in his face.

April Hamlin

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

So far, Trump has been mercifully incompetent – (OPINION)

President Trump. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

THE WASHINGTON POST

“The world is laughing at us. They’re laughing at the stupidity of our president.” – Donald Trump  October 2016

Stupid is as stupid does.

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump remarked often on the stupidity of our leaders. He was under the impression that the rest of the planet was indulging in some sort of global guffaw at our expense. “How stupid are we? The world is laughing.” If so, what must the mirthful world think of our current state of affairs? This past week alone:

//www.washingtonpost.com/video/c/embed/9141f344-0aa7-11e7-bd19-fd3afa0f7e2a

Trump’s fellow Republicans pronounced his budget dead on arrival in Congress — “draconian, careless and counterproductive” were the words used by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), former House Appropriations Committee chairman — because it recklessly cuts (slashing the State Department by nearly a third and targeting Meals on Wheels for the elderly) yet still adds to the debt Trump promised to eliminate.

Legislation to replace Obamacare stalled in Congress and had to be rewritten because of a rebellion within Trump’s own party.

A judge halted Trump’s second attempt at a ban on travel from several Muslim countries.

And Republican lawmakers probing Trump’s ties to Russia threatened subpoenas over the executive branch’s stonewalling.

In one of the presidential debates, CNBC’s John Harwood asked Trump if he was running “a comic book version of a presidential campaign.” Now Trump seems to be running a cartoon version of a presidency, and he’s Elmer Fudd. His proposals could, if successfully implemented, be ruinous. But so far, at least, Trump has been mercifully incompetent.

He and the GOP-controlled Congress have been on the job two months, but he has signed only nine bills into law, none major. The only law so far this month: a bill naming the Veterans Affairs facility in Butler County, Pa. A McClatchy-Marist poll last month found that a 58 percent majority of Americans reported being “embarrassed” by Trump. For good reason:

Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, lasted just 24 days on the job after misrepresenting his contacts with Russia. Attorney General Jeff Sessions falsely testified that he’d had no contacts with the Russians, forcing his recusal from Russia investigations once the truth came out.

Trump’s nominee to be labor secretary withdrew in the face of broad opposition. His education secretary, who suggested that schools need guns to defend against grizzlies, was confirmed only when the vice president broke a tie vote.

Trump blamed a “so-called” judge for striking down his first travel ban and proposed blaming the court system if there was a terrorist attack; his own Supreme Court nominee called such remarks disheartening.

Trump conducted sensitive diplomacy over a North Korean missile launch with the Japanese prime minister surrounded by diners at his Mar-a-Lago country club, one of whom posted online a photo of the man carrying the nuclear football.

Trump, after inflating the crowd size at his inauguration and embracing a conspiracy theory that 3 million to 5 million Americans voted illegally, falsely accused the media of not covering terrorist attacks. The White House then produced a badly spelled list of attacks, most of which had been covered. Conway invented one attack, the “Bowling Green massacre.”

Conway pitched Ivanka Trump’s fashion line on Fox News. Taxpayers have subsidized millions of dollars’ worth of expenses related to Mar-a-Lago and the Trump sons’ foreign travel.

Trump marked Black History Month with remarks suggesting he thought abolitionist Frederick Douglass was still alive.

Trump opened a rift with Australia in an angry phone call with that ally’s prime minister. He provoked the Mexican president to cancel a trip to Washington, and he baffled the Swedes by alluding to fictitious refugee-related violence “last night in Sweden.” Britain postponed a visitfrom Trump in hopes that anti-Trump protests would cool.

Trump’s closest aides have leaked several accounts of him raging about the White House. His team is frequently caught off guard by his Twitter attacks, which have included shots at Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nordstrom and misinformation Trump heard on Fox News.

This tragicomedy adds irony when you consider that the main character is the same one who campaigned by saying “they laugh at our stupidity” and “we are led by very, very stupid people” and “I have the best words, but there’s no better word than ‘stupid.’ ”

Now the world has reason to laugh at us — because we’re with stupid.

Dana Milbank

Read more on this issue:

Catherine Rampell: Just how dumb does Donald Trump think Americans are?

Glenn Kessler: Five myths Donald Trump tells about Donald Trump

Anne Applebaum: Sweden, immigrants and Trump’s post-Enlightenment world

U.S. Politics

The 78 programs Trump wants to eliminate don’t even pay for his border wall

President Trump with House Speaker Paul Ryan. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

THINK PROGRESS

Here are the things Donald Trump says the government should stop doing forever.

In his initial budget document released on Thursday, President Donald Trump called for huge reductions in government spending. Beyond simply handing some agencies and programs less money to work with, he wants to completely eliminate 78 programs — including the Appalachian Regional Commission, Community Services Block Grant, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Legal Services Corporation, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, Minority Business Development Agency, National Endowment for the Arts, United States Institute of Peace, and United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.

All told, the money saved from the functions that Trump wants to eliminate comes to just under $23.6 billion, according to a ThinkProgress analysis.

That may sound like a lot of money, but it’s not even half of the increase in funding he wants to give to the military: $54 billion. The United States already spends more on defense than the next seven largest military budgets around the world combined.

The sum is also dwarfed by the size of the tax cut that Trump has proposed enacting, which would cost the government $341 billion in the first year and $6.1 trillion over a decade. Under that plan, the poorest families would get just $110 in annual tax relief, while the richest 0.1 percent of Americans would get more than $1 million in one year.

The amount of money saved by eliminating these government programs wouldn’t even be enough to pay for the construction of Trump’s border wall, the price for which has been put at $25 billion.

CREDIT: Adam Peck/ThinkProgress

Several of the programs Trump wants to cancel have very small price tags and very large impacts. Trump’s decision not to spare even these high-efficiency connections between the government and its people is impossible to justify in budget terms, given their low costs. Instead, these cuts seem to represent a philosophical choice to derail things the president doesn’t believe in doing — even if they help people.

One HUD program tagged for execution generates massive private investment in housing construction, at the cost of just $35 million per year. The Capacity Building for Community Development and Affordable Housing program generates more than $20 in private investment in low-income housing for every dollar taxpayers spend. That radically efficient system lured almost $6 billion in low-income housing development spending from private sources since 2010, according to the nonprofit network Enterprise.

By contrast, Trump is forcing taxpayers to spend an estimated $3 million every time he travels to his Mar-A-Lago estate in Florida. He could cancel a dozen of his tropical weekends and save more money than he does by eliminating the HUD program — and without savaging the already rocky state of affordable housing investment nationwide.

Other examples from Trump’s proposed budget cuts make even less fiscal sense. He would eliminate the Overseas Private Investment Corporation even though the self-sustaining business development organization actually returns money to the treasury every year. The Interagency Council on Homelessness would be dissolved — saving just $4 million a year in exchange for making it harder to coordinate policies and reach consensus in the fight to end homelessness — as would the $11 million federal organization that investigates chemical accidents like the deadly West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion.

Alan Pyke

U.S. Politics

Trump’s Plan To Gut HUD Threatens America’s Poor

Trump’s Plan To Gut HUD Threatens America’s Poor

Ben Carson listens to a question from a reporter during a campaign stop in Las Vegas, Nevada, February 23, 2016 |  REUTERS/Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus/File Photo

THE NATIONAL MEMO

Rosemary Holmes has lived in Newark’s Terrell Holmes for the better part of six decades. She, like many others in the building, has raised children in its courtyards and hallways, and forged a tight-knit community of friends and neighbors. At the age of 68, she has been forced to band with other tenants to fight local efforts to shutter the facility. Now, as the Trump administration weighs plans to gut the Department of Housing and Urban Development, she has a new battle on her hands.

“Any time they move a person to someplace they don’t want to live, it’s imprisonment,” she told AlterNet over the phone. “I am a human being, and I deserve to live where I want to live. Us, the ones who really want to be here, we are going to be uprooted because of the sabotage of HUD and the Housing Authority.”

Horsley is one of countless public housing residents across the country directly impacted by news that the Trump administration is mulling whether to slash HUD’s budget by at least $6 billion, or 14 percent, in the 2018 fiscal year. The proposed cuts were revealed Wednesday by Washington Postreporter Jose A. DelReal, who cited “preliminary budget documents” that he had obtained. If implemented, the reductions will hit a federal agency that is already unable to meet the level of human need, thanks to systematic defunding over the course of decades.

Douglas Rice, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C., think tank, reports that the proposed cuts would, in fact, amount to $7.7 billion dollars, or a 16 percent reduction, in 2018. He arrives at this number by evaluating expected funding levels for 2017, writing: “it’s reasonable to presume that the final budget will be close to the average of the bills the House Appropriations Committee and the full Senate approved last summer.” By contrast, DelReal wrote his story based on 2016 funding levels.

Either way, the cuts are poised to be dramatic. Rice told the Washington Post that 20,000 renters will lose their assistance for every 1 percent slash to the budget of HUD. “The reality is that we’ve been living under these austere budget caps, and budgets like HUD’s have already been pretty much cut to the bone,” Rice said, pointing to the sequestration cuts of 2011. “And when you try to cut below that, you really end up with harmful impacts.”

The proposed cuts would go deep. “Budgets for public housing authorities—city and state agencies that provide subsidized housing and vouchers to local residents—would be among the hardest hit,” writes DelReal. “Under the preliminary budget, those operational funds would be reduced by $600 million, or 13 percent. Funds for big-ticket repairs at public housing facilities would be cut by an additional $1.3 billion, about 32 percent.”

Public housing in the United States already faces a backlog of $26 billion in repairs, according to a 2010 report commissioned by HUD.

The Community Development Block Grant Program, which was budgeted to receive $3 billion this fiscal year, would be entirely slashed if the proposed changes were implemented. While the budget document reportedly suggests that funds for the program “could come from outside the HUD budget as part of a separate White House bill,” it is not immediately clear where exactly such dollars would come from and whether they would be guaranteed. The HOME Investment Partnerships Program, which helps fund local affordable housing, would also be eliminated.

The gutting of HUD would take money directly out of the hands of renters in need. The Post story notes, “Under the proposal, direct rental assistance payments—including Section 8 Housing and housing vouchers for homeless veterans—would be cut by at least $300 million, to $19.3 billion. Additionally, housing for the elderly—known as the Section 202 program—would be cut by $42 million, nearly 10 percent. Section 811 housing for people with disabilities would be cut by $29 million, nearly 20 percent. Money available for Native American housing block grants would fall by $150 million, more than 20 percent.”

According to Rice’s analysis of the Post report, if the cuts go through, “Housing Choice Vouchers that some 200,000 low-income households currently use to pay their rent would be eliminated in 2018.” He explained, “Reducing the availability of this crucial support would increase and prolong homelessness for vulnerable people with disabilities, families with children and others.”

“It should be very clear to our movements, to our communities, and to the entire country that [the] Trump administration is intent on further destabilizing and dismantling programs that our communities rely on to survive,” Malcolm Torrejón Chu, communications organizer with the Right to the City Alliance and organizer for the National Homes for All Campaign, told AlterNet. “These threatened cuts to housing are threatened cuts to our community survival. And we have no illusions that the current HUD programming is enough.”

The proposed reductions are in line with Trump’s recent claim that he will pay for a $54 billion increase to the war budget in large part by cutting domestic programs.

But long before Trump made this assertion, HUD Secretary Ben Carson—who has no prior experience in housing policy—has been open about his desire to dismantle key public housing initiatives. In 2014, he opposed an agreement between the city of Dubuque and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to address the city’s housing policies that discriminate against black residents, suggesting it was proof America was “becoming communist.” In 2015, he vocalized his opposition to a HUD fair housing rule that is aimed, in part, at reducing segregation, calling it a “failed socialist experiment.”

Following the Post report, Carson reportedly sent a letter seeking to reassure staff on Thursday, stating: “Please understand that budget negotiations currently underway are very similar to those that have occurred in previous years. This budget process is a lengthy, back-and-forth process that will continue. It’s unfortunate that preliminary numbers were published, but please take some comfort in knowing that starting numbers are rarely final numbers.”

Yet the fact that such drastic cuts were proposed at all has alarmed those whose housing—and lives—are on the line. Rhonda, who lives in Terrell Homes and did not want her last name to be used, said the immediate impacts of such cuts, if they go through, would be straightforward. “They need to keep public housing, because without public housing, people will be homeless,” she said. “The numbers of homeless people in America will be going up. People will have to choose between housing and food.”

‘They want us out’

Michael Higgins, Jr., an organizer with the Brooklyn-based Families United for Racial and Economic Justice, told AlterNetthat news of proposed cuts to HUD didn’t come as a surprise. “There’s been steady cuts in every administration going back to Reagan,” he said. “Because there have been consistent cuts, and because public housing is in such bad shape, there are a decreasing number of options for people in public housing.”

According to a Congressional Budget Office report released in September 2015, federal housing assistance is already falling far short. “Currently, only about one-quarter of the eligible low-income population receives housing assistance through federal spending programs,” the office stated.

Long before the Trump administration’s proposed slash to the HUD budget, Terrell Homes residents were fighting a years-long battle against efforts to shutter their facility. “Since December 2013, there have been attempts to shut it down,” Drew Curtis, the director of community development and environmental justice for the Ironbound Community Corporation, told AlterNet. “Tenants fought back and stopped the initial demolition, but last summer they started trying again to shut down Terrell Homes.”

Curtis said that one of his first thoughts when he found out about the proposed HUD cuts was, “There is going to be even more ammunition for the local housing authority to shut this down. Tenants will need to stay diligent and keep putting on political pressure. The biggest cuts proposed were public housing operating funds and Community Development Block Grants, which often go into housing repairs. This would dramatically affect them.”

Horsley said she is exhausted after fighting a years-long battle to stay in her home. “The whole thing is, they want us out,” she said. “They cannot verbalize and come out and say they don’t want the poor blacks, the poor Hispanics, because we no longer fit the new normal.”

Terrell residents are not alone. In a statement released Thursday, the New York City-based CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities said, “The announced proposed cutting of $6 billion to HUD and $150 million funding for NYCHA and Section 8 vouchers is cutting the vein that keeps working-people from being able to keep this City running.”

“While these proposed cuts happen, New York taxpayers have spent $24 million to protect Trump’s private properties from Election Day to inauguration. It is estimated that $127,000 to upward of $308,000 will be spent each day to protect the Trump family at their NYC residence,” the statement continues. “We refuse to let our public dollars be spent to protect the rich’s war machine and unjustly kill millions of innocent Muslim lives around the world. We refuse to let our public dollars police and criminalize black and Latinx communities that fuel the deportation machine.”

Higgins underscored that, “In New York, there was already an extreme crunch of public housing. Over the years, HUD has moved more into a Section 8 voucher scheme, instead of rent being directly paid by the government. When you see Section 8 being taken, it means certain people will be out of their homes.”

Organizers say that it will be important to meet any proposed cuts with a continuation of the robust resistance that has already seen millions take to the streets, mobilize and defend their communities against Trump administration policies.

According to Torrejón Chu, “We are clear that the Trump administration is an administration that is interested in privatization and corporate profits and not people’s actual needs. We need to continue to show and expose that the administration does not represent our communities or the people.”

“We see this as a moment to not just resist cuts, but to put forward a vision of a totally different world,” he continued. “We think it’s important that our communities develop and strengthen our vision of an alternative world where we have control over land, resources and housing. A world where housing, land and community aren’t commodities. This moment is calling for us to have a vision.”

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet.

 

U.S. Politics

Spicer uses strikingly passive language to describe Trump’s oversight of troop deployment to Syria

This frame grab from a video provided by the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), shows fighters from the SDF opening fire on an Islamic State group’s position, in Raqqa’s eastern countryside on March 6 | CREDIT: Syria Democratic Forces, via AP

THINK PROGRESS

“The president was made aware of that.”

During his news conference on Thursday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked “how involved” President Trump was in the decision to deploy roughly 400 heavily armed marines to Syria.

The passive language Spicer used to describe Trump’s role may reflect the new latitude military commanders have to conduct operations without the commander in chief’s direct knowledge.

“Obviously the president was made aware of that,” Spicer said. “This is something that was done in consultation. He understands the regional issues that need to be addressed there.”

Spicer’s comment comes on the heels of reports that Trump won’t micromanage military operations in the way President Obama did.

Earlier this month, the Daily Beast, citing multiple officials, reported that “[t]he White House is considering delegating more authority to the Pentagon to greenlight anti-terrorist operations like the SEAL Team 6 raid in Yemen that cost the life of a Navy SEAL [named Ryan Owens].”

Trump “has signaled that he wants his defense secretary, retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, to have a freer hand to launch time-sensitive missions quickly, ending what U.S. officials say could be a long approval process under President Barack Obama,” the Daily Beast added.

Mattis required a congressional waiver to become defense secretary because he hadn’t been retired from active military service for more than seven years. Prior to Mattis, there was only one precedent for such a waiver being issued. Civilian control of the military is enshrined in Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, which says the president “shall be the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States when called into the actual Service of the United States.” Trump’s move to give generals more decision-making power chips away at that tradition.

The January 29 raid in Yemen, which was approved by Trump over dinner with his advisers, resulted in the deaths of at least 25 civilians, including nine children under the age of 13, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Days after it happened, Reuters reported that unnamed U.S. military officials told them Trump signed off on his first military action “without sufficient intelligence, ground support, or adequate backup preparations.”

Trump won’t accept responsibility for deadly SEAL raid he approved over dinner, blames Obama

“Well, this was a mission that was started before I got here.”thinkprogress.org
Late last month, Trump appeared to try and shift responsibility for the Yemen raid to his generals, saying during a Fox & Friends interview that “this was a mission that was started before I got here.”

“This was something that was, you know, [the generals] wanted to do,” Trump said. “And they lost Ryan.”

Spicer’s language on Thursday suggests Trump will be able to use the same excuse if anything goes awry in Syria, where the newly deployed marines, armed with artillery guns, are “working with local partners in Syria — the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian Arab Coalition” to rout ISIS from the city of Raqqa, Reuters reports.

According to Al Jazeera, the deployment, which is temporary, “could be an indication that the White House is leaning towards giving the Pentagon greater flexibility to make routine combat decisions in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” The US is also preparing to send up to 1,000 troops to Kuwait.

Trump appears determined to go after both al Qaeda and ISIS despite sending conflicting signals about his desire to get involved in Middle East conflicts during the campaign.

In September 2015, Trump asked “Why are we fighting ISIS in Syria? Let them fight each other and pick up the remnants. I would talk to them, get along with them.”

But two months later, Trump said of ISIS, “I would bomb the shit out of ‘em.”

“They have certain areas of oil that they took away,” Trump said. “I would just bomb those suckers… there would be nothing left.”

While Trump and his generals are targeting al Qaeda and not ISIS in Yemen, Foreign Policy reports that the numbers of bombs the Trump administration dropped in that civil war-ravaged country over a single week “eclipsed the annual bombing total for any year during Obama’s presidency.”

“Under the previous administration, approval for strikes came only after often slow-moving policy discussions, with senior officials required to sign off on any action, while the Trump administration has proven much quicker at greenlighting attacks,” Foreign Policy adds.

Aaron Rupar