Steve Benen

The Impossible Successor

#PresidentRyan | ¿#WhatTheyVotedFor?

Republican U.S. vice presidential nominee Mike Pence speaks at a campaign rally, Oct. 22, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Amid everything else over the last week or so, we ought not forget this:

We’re left with an unsettling picture. Flynn told the transition team he’s the subject of an ongoing federal investigation, and either that information either reached Pence or it didn’t. If Pence was out of the loop, he was dangerously incompetent at his job. If Pence knew, and Flynn became National Security Advisor anyway, that’s worse.

Remember, as the turmoil surrounding Flynn grew more serious, the vice president said he was completely unaware of Flynn’s alleged misdeeds. In March, when Fox News asked Pence about Flynn having to register as a foreign agent, Pence said he was hearing the story for the first time.

Except, as Rachel has explained on the show, that’s literally unbelievable. Not only were there multiple news reports for months about Flynn’s foreign work, but Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) wrote to Pence’s transition team to make sure Team Trump was aware of this.

(Benen)

Because, quite frankly, it still cracks me up that once upon a time, when Rubio was fumbling for water, Paul was drowning in plagiarism, and Christie apparently had nothing to do with that bridge, we might have heard Mike Pence’s name whispered as the cyclical dark horse. The Indiana governor, by Republican accounts, was politically savvy and a dedicated conservative. And while others might disagree about the savvy, it seemed for naught when he signed a RFRA and failed to comprehend what happened next. Except, of course, his dramatic revitalization as Donald Trump’s vice presidential candidate, and then vice president. It was easy enough to joke that we might yet see a President Pence.

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Terrific (Nobody Dies)

#SomethingTerrific | #WhatTheyVotedFor

Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID01). [Detail of photo by John Miller/Associated Press]

Let us try a compromise: Just don’t call him “pro-life”. Or, perhaps, we should begin in the moment, as Kristine Phillips tells it for the Washington Post:

A conservative Republican congressman from Idaho is drawing criticism for his response to a town-hall attendee’s concerns about how his party’s health-care bill would affect Medicaid recipients.

“You are mandating people on Medicaid to accept dying,” the woman said.

“That line is so indefensible,” said Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, a member of the influential House Freedom Caucus. “Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.”

The boos instantly drowned him out.

The congressman from Idaho’s First Congressional District and founding member of the House Freedom Caucus might have discovered a new apex for the absolute value of conservative political rhetoric. To the other, tempting as it seems to wonder if e’er so thoughtless bovine excrement was spoken, we do happen to be speaking both of Congress and conservatives, so, yeah, actually, lots. Still, though, Rep. Labrador reminds without question the challenge of abiding no integrity.

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Terrific (On the Rocks)

#SomethingTerrific | #WhatTheyVotedFor

President Donald Trump, joined by HHS Secretary Tom Price (left) and Vice President Mike Pence (right) explains his intention to eliminate the Affordable Care Act, 24 March 2017, at the White House, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by The Washington Post)

Robert Pear runs for the New York Times under the headline, “Pushing for Vote on Health Care Bill, Trump Seems Unclear on Its Details”. And the detail there, in turn:

After two false starts on President Trump’s promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Trump administration officials are pressing the House to vote on a revised version of the Republican repeal bill this week, perhaps as soon as Wednesday, administration officials said.

And Mr. Trump insisted that the Republican health legislation would not allow discrimination against people with pre-existing medical conditions, an assertion contradicted by numerous health policy experts as well as the American Medical Association.

“Pre-existing conditions are in the bill,” the president said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “And I mandate it. I said, ‘Has to be.’”

Steve Benen adds, for msnbc:

When Dickerson pressed Trump on whether he’s prepared to “guarantee” protections to those with pre-existing conditions, the president replied, “We actually have – we actually have a clause that guarantees.”

There is no such clause. The Republican bill guts benefits for consumers with pre-existing conditions, clearing the way for states to do the exact opposite of what Trump said yesterday. (GOP leaders have been reduced to telling worried lawmakers that most states won’t take advantage of the option, but under the Republican blueprint, the financial pressure on states to roll back protections like these would be significant.)

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Asymetrically Expected

#trumpswindle | #WhatTheyVotedFor

Detail of frame from Darker Than Black: Gemini of the Meteor, episode 6, "An Aroma Sweet, a Heart Bitter...".

Steve Benen brings both setup and punch line, which is what it is, and he is certainly fine talent―

Republican voters opposed bombing the Assad regime in Syria, until Donald Trump took office, at which point they changed their mind. GOP voters thought the American economy was awful, until a Republican became president, at which point they suddenly reversed course.

And Gallup reported late last week that Republican voters had deeply negative attitudes about the current U.S. tax system, right before they changed their minds in early 2017.

―but come on, Republicans are making it too easy. Or perhaps this is part of their faustian bargain, that such simplicity, daring to be stranger than fiction in a distinctive context akin to denigrating parody and pantomime, is the price of their desires. To say this is how Republicans or conservatives behave—to predict or expect such simplistic behavior—merely for the basis of political affiliation ought to be some manner of offensive stereotype.

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A Whiff of the Racket

#extortion | #WhatTheyVotedFor

President Donald Trump, joined by HHS Secretary Tom Price (left) and Vice President Mike Pence (right) explains his intention to eliminate the Affordable Care Act, 24 March 2017, at the White House, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by The Washington Post)

The setup, here, is not particularly complex. We can start with blaming Democrats after the collapse of #Trumpcare, which apparently failed to be #SomethingTerrific. It seems a reliable first instinct for Republicans; that is, as Steve Benen notes:

When Donald Trump’s Muslim ban failed miserably in the courts, the president was quick to assign blame—to everyone but himself. Now that the health care plan Trump wanted has also collapsed, he’s desperate to avoid responsibility, though he seems unsure who to point the finger at first.

Trump’s first instinct, evidently, was to call the Washington Post to blame Democrats.

And if the president seems to be engaging in that weird Republican sense of sport by which one simply says enough wrong that there is no reasonable way to address every problem, well, right, he is. That is to say, here we all are a few weeks later, and Mr. Trump is still upset that Democrats won’t do Republicans’ jobs for them. Again, Benen:

The confused president was nevertheless convinced that Democrats should’ve helped him destroy the most significant Democratic accomplishment since Medicare—because Trump said so. Indeed, despite the White House’s previous claims that Republicans would shift their attention towards tax reform, Trump told the Wall Street Journal yesterday that he not only remains focused on health care, he’s also considering a new hostage strategy to force Democrats to give him what he wants.

In an interview in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump said he was still considering what to do about the payments approved by his Democratic predecessor, President Barack Obama, which some Republicans contend are unconstitutional. Their abrupt disappearance could trigger an insurance meltdown that causes the collapse of the 2010 health law, forcing lawmakers to return to a bruising debate over its future.

“Obamacare is dead next month if it doesn’t get that money,” Trump said, referring to cost-sharing reductions. “I haven’t made my viewpoint clear yet. I don’t want people to get hurt…. What I think should happen and will happen is the Democrats will start calling me and negotiating.”
In other words, when the president says he doesn’t “want people to get hurt,” he means he will start hurting people by sabotaging the American health care system unless Democrats take steps to satisfy his demands.

This is a terrible habit. That is, we all know Donald Trump likes a bit of the tough-guy, wannabe mafioso bluff, but he is President of the United States of Amerca, and should not be seen threatening extortion over legislation, full stop.

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#DimensionSteve (Narrative)

#DimensionTrump | #WhatTheyVotedFor

Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks during the 2016 Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Candidates Forum in Washington, DC, December 3, 2015 (AFP Photo/Saul Loeb)

We might take a moment now and then to observe the power of narrative, and it is fair enough to acknowledge there is nothing new if we take the note from Steve Benen of msnbc:

When it comes to Donald Trump’s White House and issues related to the Nazi Holocaust, the president and his team have made some unfortunate missteps. There was, for example, the ill-advised statement honoring International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January. A month later, the West Wing had an odd quarrel with the Anne Frank Center.

Today, however, Team Trump broke new ground.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer compared Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Adolf Hitler on Tuesday, saying that even someone as “despicable” as the German dictator “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer attempts to demonstrate the difference between government and the Republican health care agenda during a daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., 7 March 2017. (Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)Asked moments later to clarify those remarks, Spicer, speaking from the White House podium, said that Hitler “was not using the gas on his own people the same way Assad used them.”

Spicer went on to say Hitler brought people into “Holocaust centers.”

All of this, of course, unfolded from the White House podium during Passover.

Part of what makes this so remarkable is how obviously wrong Spicer was. One need not be a historian to know Hitler gassed Holocaust victims. The reference to “his own people” made an unfortunate mistake worse. As for Spicer describing Nazi concentration camps as “Holocaust centers,” I honestly don’t know where to start.

(11 April 2017)

To the one, it really was an awkward circumstance even more unnerving to experience, even having heard or read about it. And, yes, the Press Secretary is a particularly unfortunate example of his office; Mr. Spicer can very much seem emblematic of Trump administration incompetence. There is no chic about Cheeky Spice’s reboot of the dignity of the office. There is, however, the added gravity of just how this White House has managed to create it’s own … er … ah … question about Jews. Of course, there is also this: We should not be surprised, although back then conventional wisdom thought going after Jews to their faces like that was a bad idea.

Still, though: If we call it a Kinsley gaffe, then what truth have we just glimpsed?

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Waning Tacitry

#AmericanPrestige | #WhatTheyVotedFor

President-elect Donald Trump delivers his first official news conference since winning the November election, 11 January 2017 in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Via msnbc:

Ordinarily, a half-way competent president would manage to avoid quite so many international incidents, but Trump has managed to create these problems after just two months—in many cases, for reasons that are only obvious to him.

Remember, as we discussed a month ago, Republicans spent years investing enormous energy into the idea that President Obama hurt the United States’ international standing. The opposite was true, but GOP officials nevertheless argued, with unnerving vigor, that America had forfeited the admiration of the world.

During the Republican presidential primaries, for example, Jeb Bush insisted that during the Obama era, “We have lost the trust and confidence of our friends.” Around the same time, Scott Walker and Donald Trump had a chat about “how poorly” the United States is now “perceived throughout the world.” Mitt Romney added, “It is hard to name even a single country that has more respect and admiration for America today than when President Obama took office.”

The point is pretty much the same, whoever makes it: For all Republicans complained about American prestige during the Obama presidency, it seems, like so many of their other complaints, precisely strange that they should have backed President Donald Trump. Then again, perhaps we should consider what that really means.

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A Point Most Obvious (Far More Serious)

#resist | #WhatTheyVotedFor

Retired Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump's incoming National Security Adviser, listens during the presidential inaugural Chairman's Global Dinner, Tuesday, 17 January 2017, in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo)

Steve Benen brings the Monday morning update―

The fact that Donald Trump relied on a foreign agent as a top campaign adviser—and a trusted member of his inner circle—during the presidential campaign looks bad. Not necessarily stop-the-presses bad, but the fact that the Republican was paying Michael Flynn while Flynn was also paid by Turkey is a tough controversy to simply explain away.

What’s becoming a far more serious story is Team Trump lying about all of this now.

―and perhaps a sense of fatigue we feel should not be ignored.

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The Story So Far (#crackpottery)

#crackpottery | #WhatTheyVotedFor

#PutiTrump: Protest image of Vladimir Putin, artist unknown. Donald Trump in detail of photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for msnbc, 2016.

While the damage assessment remains uncertain, President Trump’s weekend twitterpation certainly raised the Beltway beyond murmur and buzz, and near to open clamor. As distractions go, it is certainly a handful of headlines to follow, but the problem with news derived from fantasy is often that it is rather quite difficult to discern what portions of the noise are which. Steve Benen offers the Monday morning overview, and we would not so much complain that it does not help as, rather, point out that even still, the situation is a messy patchwork of speculation, insinuation, and mystifying whatnot:

Why does Trump believe Obama had his “wires tapped” before the election? Perhaps the better question is why Trump believes anything he says about any subject. In this case, the president said on Saturday that he “just found out” about the alleged Obama scheme, but by all accounts, this didn’t come from any official sources. It’s likely the Republican president relied on a report from Breitbart, a right-wing website his former strategist used to run. (It’s also possible Trump saw a piece in the National Enquirer about Obama being out to get him and started filling in the gaps with imagined evidence.)

Is it possible Obama really did tap Trump’s phone? Well, that’s where this gets interesting. Whether Trump understands this or not, a president doesn’t have the authority to unilaterally order a tap on an American’s phone calls. An administration can, however, get a warrant if there’s credible evidence that’s brought before a judge.

It creates an awkward dynamic: either there was no secret surveillance, in which case the president is starting to appear delusional, or there was secret surveillance, in which case there’s evidence that Trump is suspected of serious crimes and/or is an agent of a foreign government. Either way, the Republican isn’t doing himself any favors with tantrums like these.

What are members of Trump’s White House team doing about this? As is often the case, the West Wing is starting with ridiculous comments from the president, and then reverse-engineering their way through the process.

The New York Times reported, “[A] senior White House official said that Donald F. McGahn II, the president’s chief counsel, was working to secure access to what Mr. McGahn believed to be an order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizing some form of surveillance related to Mr. Trump and his associates. The official offered no evidence to support the notion that such an order exists.”

And this is how it goes: Louise Mensch → Mark Levin → Breitbart → Donald Trump → Twitter → headlines.

Yes, really, this starts with a Tory.

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Image note: #PutiTrump: Protest image of Vladimir Putin, artist unknown. Donald Trump in detail of photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for msnbc, 2016.

Benen, Steve. “Trump targets Obama with wild-eyed wiretapping conspiracy theory”. msnbc. 6 March 2017.

Passthrough (Presidential Potsherd)

#PresidentPotsherd | #WhatTheyVotedFor

President-elect Donald Trump delivers his first official news conference since winning the November election, 11 January 2017 in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“I assume ‘let’s blame Obama’ will become a popular rallying cry in far-right circles, because it’s vastly easier than dealing with the facts.”

Steve Benen

It is not quite correct to ask who is surprised. In truth, nobody ought to be surprised. Still, though, if we inquire, for the sake of some decent societal form, what brought on Mr. Benen’s line, well:

This week, the president has moved on to a new explanation: this is all Obama’s fault. USA Today reported this morning:

President Trump said that former president Barack Obama is “behind” the angry protests that have erupted at Republican town halls around the nation during an interview on the Fox News morning program Fox and Friends scheduled to air Tuesday morning.

“I think he is behind it,” Trump said when asked about Obama’s role in the protests. “I also think it’s politics. That’s the way it is.

“No, I think that President Obama is behind it,” Trump said, “because his people are certainly behind it and some of the leaks, possibly come from that group, some of the leaks – which are really very serious leaks because they’re very bad in terms of national security – but I also understand that’s politics. And in terms of him being behind things, that’s politics. And it will probably continue.”

This is, in many ways, the perfect Donald J. Trump Conspiracy Theory.

And this is the Donald J. Trump administration, after all.

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