Not Really Brilliant at Breakfast

Oscar Wilde was onto something. In An Ideal Husband one of the characters says this – “In England people actually try to be brilliant at breakfast. That is so dreadful of them! Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast.”

No one is brilliant at breakfast. After a whole lot of coffee, and perhaps something a bit sugary – and in France, four or five Gauloises smoked to the butt-end – they may end up marginally functional. That’ll get them to work. They can be brilliant there – and dull people only seem brilliant at breakfast. They’re still dull. It’s just that everyone else is in a haze. It’s a matter of contrast. They’re more irritating than brilliant. They’re a pain in the ass.

That, however, is only a minor matter in the Wilde play, which is actually about blackmail and political corruption, and about public and private honor. There isn’t much of that anywhere to be seen. There’s much to laugh at. The play is full of dull people who think they’re brilliant.

Beware of such people, particularly at breakfast. They’re not really brilliant. The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker provide an example:

President Trump has a new morning ritual. Around 6:30 a.m. on many days – before all the network news shows have come on the air – he gets on the phone with a member of his outside legal team to chew over all things Russia.

The calls – detailed by three senior White House officials – are part strategy consultation and part presidential venting session, during which Trump’s lawyers and public-relations gurus take turns reviewing the latest headlines with him. They also devise their plan for battling his avowed enemies: the special counsel leading the Russia investigation; the “fake news” media chronicling it; and, in some instances, the president’s own Justice Department overseeing the probe.

They may be humoring him, because these seem to be only presidential venting sessions:

His advisers have encouraged the calls – which the early-to-rise Trump takes from his private quarters in the White House residence – in hopes that he can compartmentalize the widening Russia investigation. By the time the president arrives for work in the Oval Office, the thinking goes, he will no longer be consumed by the Russia probe that he complains hangs over his presidency like a darkening cloud.

In short, let the dull man think he’s brilliant at breakfast. Let him get the nonsense out of his system. Then he can be (relatively) brilliant at work, later, like a normal person.

That’s the plan, but this may be just a snarky Oscar Wilde comedy:

Asked whether the tactic was effective, one top White House adviser paused for several seconds and then just laughed.

Trump’s grievances and moods often bleed into one another. Frustration with the investigation stews inside him until it bubbles up in the form of rants to aides about unfair cable television commentary or as slights aimed at Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod J. Rosenstein.

And, of course, it emerges in fiery tweets about the “WITCH HUNT” – or, as he wrote Thursday morning, shortly before an event promoting leadership in technology, “a big Dem HOAX!”

This is a lost cause, and all that’s left is damage control:

Interviews with 22 senior administration officials, outside advisers, and Trump confidants and allies reveal a White House still trying, after five months of halting progress, to establish a steady rhythm of governance while also indulging and managing Trump’s combative and sometimes self-destructive impulses.

The White House is laboring to prevent the Russia matter from overtaking its broader agenda, diligently rolling out a series of theme weeks, focusing on topics including infrastructure and workforce development. West Wing aides are working to keep the president on schedule, trotting him around the country in front of the supportive crowds that energize him.

Oscar Wilde would have fun with that, but this really isn’t funny:

Some in the White House fret over what they view as the president’s fits of rage, and Trump’s longtime friends say his mood has been more sour than at any point since they have known him.

They privately worry about his health, noting that he appears to have gained weight in recent months and that the darkness around his eyes reveals his stress.

Parker and Rucker go on to describe what follows that. Everyone is one edge. No one knows who the next target of Trump’s rage is. Some hide, some leak to the press to save their hides should it all implode. Some hope to ride it out and come out on top. Parker and Rucker discuss them all, and it’s not a comedy. The dull man is dangerous. He may be a danger to the country.

He also may be in denial. CNN’s Jeremy Diamond covers that:

White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Tuesday said he didn’t know whether President Donald Trump believes Russia was behind interference in the 2016 election.

“I have not sat down and talked to him about that specifically,” Spicer said, again repeating the same explanation when pressed.

Donald Trump doesn’t want to talk about that, but everyone knows the facts:

The US intelligence community concluded months ago that Russia was behind the hacking of Democratic groups and other activity in the 2016 election designed to help elect Trump and hurt his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton’s chances in the election. The intelligence community released its conclusions in a public report in January.

The final report followed the US intelligence community’s initial statement in October 2016 that claimed senior Russian officials directed the hacking of Democratic Party organizations during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Donald Trump has a problem with that:

Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the intelligence community’s conclusions, though he did concede in January that Russia was likely responsible.

“As far as hacking, I think it was Russia, but I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people,” Trump said at a January news conference before his inauguration.

Asked again in April about the intelligence community’s conclusions, Trump appeared ambivalent.

“I’ll go along with Russia,” Trump said, adding: “Could’ve been China, could’ve been a lot of different groups.”

Now he always says “if” Russia did this, for obvious reasons:

The President’s refusal to pin the blame full-stop on Russia for its campaign to influence the 2016 election stems from allegations that of collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russians – which Trump has emphatically denied. Trump has said that the allegations are aimed at undermining his electoral victory in November.

One thing leads to another. He is sure that there was no collusion between his campaign associates and the Russians – but he’s worried that their might have been, and he didn’t know it, so to cover all possibilities he’s convinced himself that the Russians may have done nothing at all.

That fixes everything. If they did nothing, he has nothing, something he might not yet know, to worry about. They did nothing. That solves that problem. All he has to do is say he’s agrees with Vladimir Putin, who keeps saying the Russians did nothing at all, and say our intelligence agencies don’t know shit. He did call the CIA a bunch of Nazis after all. Then he has to convince all good Americans to stand with him, shoulder to shoulder with Vladimir Putin, against our intelligence services, and our military, top to bottom, and every other Republican, and just about everyone else in America.

That might not be the way to go. Maybe it’s best not to know:

Former FBI Director James Comey testified earlier this month that Trump never asked him about Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election. But Trump did ask him on multiple occasions about the FBI’s investigation into ties between Trump campaign associates and Russians.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions – who did not recuse himself from the Russia probe until a month into his tenure – testified last week that he has never received a classified briefing on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

That’s the White House directive. Let’s not talk about this.

Forget that. The Washington Post just published a lengthy exclusive detailing the Obama administration’s response in its last days to reports that Russia had worked to interfere in the 2016 election that opened with this:

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.

But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives – defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

The CIA has Putin’s specific instructions, and Slate’s Osita Nwanevu summarizes the rest:

The Post’s report details internal debates about how to respond to the information, which was tightly guarded with extraordinary measures. The administration ultimately decided to pursue a set of limited sanctions in December, disappointing some officials. “The punishment did not fit the crime,” former Russia ambassador Michael McFaul told the Post. A broader array of options was considered and efforts were undertaken to bolster electoral security, but the administration’s response was stymied by a number of factors.

It got complicated:

Obama was wary of politicizing the scandal: As has been previously reported, President Obama and others in the administration were deeply wary of creating the impression that responses to Russia’s actions were motivated by a desire to aid Hillary Clinton’s election. The Post reports, for instance, that in September, Obama intentionally refused to place his signature on the intelligence community’s public statement about Russia’s actions. “To some, Obama’s determination to avoid politicizing the Russia issue had the opposite effect,” the Post’s Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous write. “It meant that he allowed politics to shape his administration’s response to what some believed should have been treated purely as a national security threat.”

Republicans obstructed efforts to address the situation: The Post’s report mentions Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s effort to warn state officials about the vulnerability of their election systems to attack. At a House hearing Wednesday, Johnson said that the responses had “ranged from neutral to negative.” This was in part because Republican officials framed the effort as a nefarious attempt to infringe on state sovereignty. Republicans on the Hill were no more responsive.

The Post was clear about that:

The Dems were, ‘Hey, we have to tell the public,’ recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia’s aim of sapping confidence in the system.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.

Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.

Nwanevu adds this:

Clinton’s likelihood of victory shaped the response: The administration assumed that a highly likely Clinton victory in November would give the new administration ample time to pursue aggressive counteraction. Trump’s election, of course, upended things.

The Post was clear about that too:

Suddenly, Obama faced a successor who had praised WikiLeaks and prodded Moscow to steal even more Clinton emails, while dismissing the idea that Russia was any more responsible for the election assault than “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”

“The White House was mortified and shocked,” said a former administration official. “From national security people there was a sense of immediate introspection, of, ‘Wow, did we mishandle this.'”

Trump’s victory changed things, so we began a war:

The cyber operation is still in its early stages and involves deploying “implants” in Russian networks deemed “important to the adversary and that would cause them pain and discomfort if they were disrupted,” a former U.S. official said.

The implants were developed by the NSA and designed so that they could be triggered remotely as part of retaliatory cyber-strike in the face of Russian aggression, whether an attack on a power grid or interference in a future presidential race.

Officials familiar with the measures said that there was concern among some in the administration that the damage caused by the implants could be difficult to contain.

As with a nuclear war, things could get out of hand. They shut down our power grids, we shut down their power grids. They shut down our financial system, we shut down theirs. Either way, it’s back to the Stone Age.

Nwanevu notes we settled for this:

Amid the sanctions, Obama’s State Department shut down a pair of Russian compounds in the U.S. suspected to be centers for espionage. And the motivation behind those closures included a previously unreported confrontation between a Russian military helicopter and “a vehicle being driven by the U.S. defense attaché on a stretch of road between Murmansk and Pechenga in northern Russia.”

It’s going to be hard for Trump to hide in denial now, and Ed Kilgore adds this:

Yes, the Obama administration took “punitive measures” right before it left office, but there was little or no follow-up from the Trump administration. You don’t have to believe the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to understand why the new administration did not want to “go there”: Why should it undermine its own electoral legitimacy?

And so, Russia interfered, Obama couldn’t stop it, and Putin was rewarded for his very bad behavior. Will the Trump administration and its allies in Congress do anything other than wish the whole thing away? Probably not. And that is a travesty, even if Team Trump was an innocent beneficiary of the Kremlin’s intervention.

Will Saletan goes further than that:

Did President Obama blow the 2016 election? Should he have spoken up sooner and louder about Russia’s interference? That’s what many Democrats are wondering, particularly after reading the Washington Post’s latest investigative report on Obama’s reticent response to the Russian attack…

There’s plenty to second-guess in Obama’s management of this episode. But the idea that he failed because Trump won is wrong. Obama’s job wasn’t to prevent the election of a particular person, even one as awful as Trump. Obama’s job was to preserve the country. That meant protecting the integrity of our elections and public faith in them, which he did, to the extent possible after Russia had already hacked into the Democratic National Committee and spread misinformation. The next task – exposing the full extent of Russia’s interference, punishing it, and deterring future attacks – is up to Trump. If he fails, the responsibility to hold him accountable falls to Congress. And if Congress fails, the job of electing a new, more patriotic legislature falls to voters.

Until then, don’t blame Obama:

According to the U.S. intelligence community’s Jan. 6 assessment, Vladimir Putin’s long-term goal in directing the interference campaign was to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process.” Obama responded accordingly. “We set out from a first-order principle that required us to defend the integrity of the vote,” Obama’s former chief of staff, Denis McDonough, told the Post. Russia’s hacks and leaks were bad, but corruption of voter rolls and election tallies would be far worse. So the Obama administration focused on alerting state officials, fortifying cyber-defenses, and privately threatening Russia with retaliation.

Why didn’t Obama raise public alarms about Russian infiltration? Because that might have backfired. “Trump was predicting that the election would be rigged,” says the Post. “Obama officials feared providing fuel to such claims, playing into Russia’s efforts to discredit the outcome.” According to the paper, Obama and his team “worried that any action they took would be perceived as political interference in an already volatile campaign.” Rather than speak up when the CIA first warned him about Putin’s moves, Obama waited for “a high-confidence assessment from U.S. intelligence agencies on Russia’s role and intent.” He asked congressional Republicans to join him in cautioning citizens and state election officials. You can argue that this was politically naïve. But Obama wasn’t playing politics. He was trying to unite the country.

And then there’s the counterfactual:

We don’t know what would have happened had he acted differently. If he had raised a stink before the intelligence community reached a consensus, or if he had warned the public explicitly that Russia was trying to help Trump, imagine the outrage. It’s quite plausible that Trump would have won – perhaps even coming out ahead in the popular vote – and Democrats would now be castigating Obama for ruining everything.

Obama and his aides wrongly assumed the next administration would punish Russia, that’s true. But what the anonymous Obama official told the Post – that there would be “ample time after the election, regardless of outcome, for punitive measures” – is also true. Holding Putin accountable and deterring him from future aggression isn’t Obama’s job. It’s Trump’s.

Yeah, well, good luck with that:

Putin sought to hurt Clinton and help Trump. That’s clear in the intelligence community’s Jan. 6 assessment. But in the heat of the election, Clinton was poorly positioned to make that case. So was Obama, her benefactor and fellow Democrat. The most credible messengers would have been Republicans. The most credible of all, to this day, would be Trump. Nothing in Trump’s history suggests he has the moral comprehension or will to speak the truth about what Putin did, much less to confront him. But every president must be held to a presidential standard.

Obama met that standard. He focused on protecting democracy, not on electing Clinton. He did this so that an American republic could be passed to his successor. Trump’s duty is to safeguard that inheritance.

That may not happen:

Trump has repaid Obama’s patriotism by rewarding and protecting Putin. Trump refuses to concede that Russia was behind the election hack. He has tried to loosen, not tighten, sanctions on Russia. He has invited Russia’s foreign minister to the White House and assured him, in a meeting closed to the press, that by firing Comey, Trump relieved “pressure” on the U.S.-Russia relationship.

Saletan is a bit outraged by all this:

The Russia investigation was never about Russia. It was, and is, about America. It’s about whether you put your country before a partisan or personal agenda. It’s about understanding that America isn’t just a plot of land. It’s an idea. We elect our leaders, our leaders follow rules, and they represent all of us. Obama was determined to preserve that idea, even at the risk of relinquishing the White House to Trump. The successor who betrayed him – and us – is unworthy of his office.

Ah, but he is brilliant at breakfast. At breakfast, Donald Trump schemes and plots, and vents, and finally calms down, for a few minutes. That’s his brilliant moment each day, but only dull people are brilliant at breakfast – and dangerous people.

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Individualism Untempered By Common Decency

Donald Trump was inevitable. The repeal of Obamacare was inevitable. Six years ago, Neal Gabler explained that in America the Stony-Hearted:

When the political history of the last thirty years is written, scholars will no doubt describe a rightward revolution that jolted this country out of its embrace of New Deal, big-government progressivism and into a love affair with small-government conservatism. But this change, significant as it is, has been undergirded by a less apparent but no less monumental revolution that has transformed the nation’s values, ideals and aspirations. Over those same thirty years, we have become a different country morally from what we were.

We have? Yes, you can make that argument:

The United States has always had a complex national moral system. On the one hand, there is the Puritan-inflected America of rugged individualism, hard work, self-reliance and personal responsibility in which you reap what you sow, God helps those who help themselves, and our highest obligation is to live righteously. These precepts run from Cotton Mather to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Billy Graham.

On the other hand, there is also an America of community, common cause, charity and collective responsibility. In this America, salvation comes from good works, compassion is among the greatest of virtues, and our highest obligation is to help others. These precepts run from Walt Whitman to the late 19th century Social Gospel movement to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

These two moralities managed to coexist – often within the same person – because they were not seen as mutually exclusive, especially in the 20th century. Nor was either the province of one political party or the other. Conservatives could subscribe to the ideals of generosity and compassion, just as liberals could subscribe to hard work and individual responsibility.

Sure, but that was then and this is now:

Liberals have come to see the emphasis on the individual and self-reliance as a form of civic irresponsibility and selfishness – a way to justify rogue economic behavior and enrichment at the expense of the community. It was, incidentally, a charge adherents of the novelist Ayn Rand gladly invited because they believe selfishness is a tough, exalted form of morality. Thus were the moral sides drawn: soft-headed versus tough-minded, big-hearted versus stony-hearted.

And we know who is winning this argument:

Scarcely a generation ago you wouldn’t have found many conservatives who would have sneered at compassion or tolerance or fundamental fairness, even if they disagreed with liberals on how these concepts might operate in the real world. Today, open contempt for these values is conservative boilerplate for Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, and even for the Republican Party itself, whose idea of cutting government is always cutting programs that help the weakest and least fortunate Americans and whose idea of compassion is caring about the tax burden of the wealthiest Americans. Beyond politics, these attitudes threaten to make this the first generation that promulgates an individualism untempered by common decency.

Gabler saw that as a problem:

If compassion is seen as softness, tolerance as a kind of promiscuity, community as a leech on individuals and fairness as another word for scheming, we are a harder nation than we used to be, and arguably a less moral one as well.

Or we’re a more moral nation. Paul Ryan still has all his staffers read Ayn Rand. Community is a leech on individuals. As Mitt Romney would have it, that forty-seven percent is leeching off of the good people. That’s a moral statement. Being stony-hearted may be quite moral. It depends on who you ask, and it depends on who’s in charge at the moment.

At the moment, the stony-hearted are in charge, and as Robert Pear and Thomas Kaplan report, the inevitable just happened:

Senate Republicans, who for seven years have promised a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, took a major step on Thursday toward that goal, unveiling a bill to make deep cuts in Medicaid and end the law’s mandate that most Americans have health insurance.

The 142-page bill would create a new system of federal tax credits to help people buy health insurance, while offering states the ability to drop many of the benefits required by the Affordable Care Act, like maternity care, emergency services and mental health treatment.

But the measure landed in rough seas ahead of a vote that Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, wants next week. Four conservative senators, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, announced that they would oppose it without changes – more than enough to bring it down.

“It does not appear this draft as written will accomplish the most important promise that we made to Americans: to repeal Obamacare and lower their health care costs,” the four wrote in a joint statement.

The bill wasn’t stony-hearted enough for them, but there were those who whose hearts were not yet stone:

Other Republican senators, like Dean Heller of Nevada and Rob Portman of Ohio, expressed their own qualms, as did AARP, the American Hospital Association, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and the Association of American Medical Colleges.

“We are extremely disappointed by the Senate bill released today,” the medical school association wrote. “Despite promises to the contrary, it will leave millions of people without health coverage, and others with only bare-bones plans that will be insufficient to properly address their needs.”

In fact, this bill could make neither side happy:

Once promised as a top-to-bottom revamp of the health bill passed by the House last month, the Senate bill instead maintains its structure, with modest adjustments. The Senate version is, in some respects, more moderate than the House bill, offering more financial assistance to some lower-income people to help them defray the rapidly rising cost of private health insurance.

But the Senate bill would make subsidies less generous than under current law. It would also lower the annual income limit for receiving subsidies to cover insurance premiums to 350 percent of the poverty level, or about $42,000 for an individual, from 400 percent.

Older people could be disproportionately hurt because they pay more for insurance in general. Both chambers’ bills would allow insurers to charge older people five times as much as younger ones; the limit now is three times.

This is to assure that the (morally) good people get some relief:

The Senate measure, like the House bill, would phase out the extra money that the federal government has provided to states as an incentive to expand eligibility for Medicaid. And like the House bill, it would put the entire Medicaid program on a budget, ending the open-ended entitlement that now exists.

It would also repeal most of the tax increases imposed by the Affordable Care Act to help pay for expanded coverage, in effect handing a broad tax cut to the affluent in a measure that would also slice billions of dollars from Medicaid, a program that serves one in five Americans, not only the poor but also almost two-thirds of people in nursing homes. A capital-gains tax cut for the most affluent Americans would be retroactive to the beginning of this year.

They can do that, because they’re in charge, but there’s still an America of community, common cause, charity and collective responsibility:

Democrats and some insurers say Mr. Trump has sabotaged the Affordable Care Act, in part by threatening to withhold subsidies paid to insurers so they can reduce deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs for millions of low-income people.

And President Barack Obama, who has been hesitant to speak up on political issues since leaving office, waded into the debate on Thursday, saying the Senate proposal showed a “fundamental meanness.”

“The Senate bill, unveiled today, is not a health care bill,” Mr. Obama wrote on his Facebook page. “It’s a massive transfer of wealth from middle-class and poor families to the richest people in America. It hands enormous tax cuts to the rich and to the drug and insurance industries, paid for by cutting health care for everybody else.”

Sorry, but that’s the general idea. That’s how a moral nation deals with leeches, or something. That argument is only implicit, but the whole thing certainly seems mean.

Jordan Weissmann, Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent, assesses the relative meanness here:

Donald Trump called the House GOP’s health care bill “mean.” This one – the Better Care Reconciliation Act – is meaner.

“I thought it wouldn’t be possible for the Senate Republicans to conjure up a bill even worse than that one,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said at a press conference Thursday afternoon. “Unfortunately, that is what they have done.” He then turned to a red poster with the word “mean” printed across it, and scrawled an “er” in black sharpie next to it. Voilà! “Meaner.”

Corny? Sure. But to Democrats’ credit, it was at least on point.

The Senate version really is more stony-hearted:

Remarkably, the Senate has produced a piece of legislation that would cause even more human wreckage than the much-loathed bill the House passed last month, potentially dealing a historic blow to the American safety net.

The reason why it truly is meaner can be boiled down to another single word: Medicaid. One could maybe argue that the Senate’s bill is mildly gentler to Americans who buy their insurance on the individual market – though even that is debatable. What is indisputable, however, is that the bill sets up Medicaid for even more devastating cuts than what the House contemplated, gradually throttling the program’s funding in order to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy.

In moral terms, the “devil” is in the details:

Many people – including some supposedly ticked-off conservative Republican senators – have already described the Senate bill’s reforms to the individual market as “Obamacare lite.” That’s reasonable enough. Like the Affordable Care Act, the Senate bill would give Americans tax credits to buy health insurance, calculated by their age and income. But these credits would be much stingier.

How much stingier?

Today, under Obamacare, Americans qualify for tax credits if they earn up to 400 percent of the poverty line. Under the Senate bill, the threshold would drop to 350 percent.

Under Obamacare, Americans who receive subsidies have to spend no more than 9.5 percent of their income on premiums. Under the Senate bill, they’d have to spend as much as 16.2 percent.

Under Obamacare, subsidies are designed to help people buy insurance that covers, on average, 70 percent of their health costs. (Those are known as silver plans.) Under the Senate plan, subsidies are designed to buy insurance that covers 58 percent of costs. (Today, that’d be a bronze plan.) Low-income people would get less money to buy crappier insurance with higher deductibles. In other words, their insurance could be all but unusable.

There were, however, some concessions to be kind to the leeches:

While the Senate bill gives people less help to buy coverage, it does avoid some of the truly perverse outcomes for low-income and older Americans that were baked into the House’s legislation, which set its own flat tax credits based mostly on age. For instance, the scheme that Paul Ryan and his colleagues concocted would have left a 64-year-old making $26,500 per year paying more than half his income toward insurance premiums. That same person would be spending closer to 10 percent of his paycheck under the Senate plan.

Unlike the House bill, the Senate wouldn’t let states opt out of Obamacare’s popular consumer protections for patients with pre-existing conditions. Of course, it would still let them ditch other key rules, like the requirements that insurers cover certain benefits, which would make it hard for the sick to find the coverage they need. It would still let carriers charge older patients more than they can now, too. But in terms of regulations, I suppose you could say it is less “mean.”

But that may be all for show:

It’s not clear anybody on the individual market would be much better off than under Obamacare. Fewer would qualify for subsidies, which would be worth less. It’s not clear premiums would fall all that much, especially if states decided to keep the Affordable Care Act’s regulations. Deductibles would be sure to go up. Under the House bill, on the other hand, some middle-class households would probably be eligible for tax credits to buy insurance for the first time. For all the violence that bill would have inflicted on the sick and vulnerable, there were at least a few clear winners. With the Better Care Reconciliation Act, not so much.

But the individual market is a bit of a sideshow. It’s where around 22 million people get their health insurance today. The real issue is Medicaid – which covers about 62 million individuals, or almost one-fifth of Americans, and 39 percent of children. Both the House and Senate would make historic, devastating changes to the program that would leave millions uninsured. But the Senate’s are more extreme. Where Paul Ryan would take a hatchet to Medicaid, Mitch McConnell would break out the Black & Decker.

Again, details matter:

Both bills would roll back Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. The Senate would go about it more slowly – a big priority of the chamber’s moderates, who supposedly didn’t want to “pull the rug out” from anybody – but the end result is the same. Both bills would also cap federal Medicaid spending for the first time, giving each state a fixed chunk of change each year to help pay for each enrollee. But after 2024, the Senate bill would increase that funding much more slowly by tying it to a lower measure of inflation. That tiny, technical-sounding change would cause Medicaid’s purchasing power to rapidly wither.

To be specific: The House bill would increase Medicaid funding based on the medical component of the Consumer Price Index. (Spending for some groups, like the elderly and disabled, would be based on the M-CPI plus 1 percent.) This sounds reasonable, until you realize that the M-CPI, as it’s called, mostly tracks items that families pay for out of pocket – glasses and Tylenol rather than hip-replacement surgery. Hitching Medicaid to the index would drag the program’s budget growth, making it nearly impossible for states to continue offering enrollees the same level of care they receive today. Statehouses would be forced to choose between reducing the number of services Medicaid covers, reducing payments to doctors, or even cutting the program’s rolls.

The Senate prefers an even more severe approach. After 2024, it would adjust Medicaid based on the normal Consumer Price Index, which tracks things like food, clothing, and electronics, trailing far behind medical inflation. There is no real policy justification for this other than budget-cutting.

That’s just plain mean:

How bad could the damage be? Well, the House bill would have slashed about a quarter of Medicaid’s future funding over a decade. The Senate plan cuts much deeper. Over time, this approach could easily drain hundreds of billions more from Medicaid, leaving the program a shadow of its former self as its budget fails to keep up with ever-climbing costs.

Medicaid is bedrock piece of the American health care system, larger by enrollment than Medicare. Both the House and Senate would cut it back. Either approach would signal a generational disaster for the American welfare state. But Mitch McConnell’s bill would bring on the travesty even more quickly. So, yeah, you could say his bill is meaner.

Or his bill is more moral in the Ayn Rand sense. Take your pick, or as Katy Waldman argues, stop using that word:

When Trump used the word mean, it seemed at once inadequate and innocent – a plaintive plea from the mouth of a babe. The president’s moral imagination is a Chinese violin with only two strings: nice and mean. The House bill plucked the second one.

When Schumer used the comparative meaner, it seemed full of foolishness. The Democrats were so absorbed in and amused by their lame performance of outrage that they turned genuine moral indignation into kindergarten-grade insult comedy. That bill was mean. This bill is mean-ER. We’ve got your votes, amirite?

Okay, don’t use that word. Talk substance. That’s what Daniel Gross does here:

One of the expressed intentions of Republicans’ efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare is to undo some of the age-related distribution inherent in the system. Today, healthy young people pay more so that older, less-healthy people don’t have to pay quite as much.

The idea was to reverse that, to be fair to healthy young people, but that ignores real life:

Asking older people to pay so much for health care is particularly devastating given the ongoing structural changes in our economy. Most Americans don’t make that much money. The median household income in the U.S. is about $55,000. But the median household income for those in the 55–64 cohort is markedly below the median for those in the 45–54 and 35–44 cohorts. Most Americans don’t have much savings. The median retirement savings for people between the ages of 50 and 55 in 2013 was $8,000.

Now, the best way to avoid paying a large chunk of your income and savings for insurance for a few years until Medicare kicks in at 65 is to keep a payroll job with health insurance. But increasingly, American employers don’t want to keep people in their 50s on their payrolls. The closer Americans get to Medicare eligibility, they more likely they are to be pushed out of their jobs – and out of the workforce entirely. The data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells the tale. In 2014, 79.6 percent of Americans between the ages of 45 and 54 were in the workforce. But of those between the ages of 55 and 59, 71.4 percent were in the workforce, while 67 percent of those aged 60–61 were and just 53 percent of those between 62 and 64 were.

In virtually every industry, at virtually every level of the income ladder, employees are explicitly seeking to move people off the payroll as they age into their 50s. Which means more of those Americans must buy insurance on the market the Republicans are currently trying to remake.

That may be so, but to some, that doesn’t matter:

Given the relentless global competition and pressure continually to boost profits, it is likely that this dynamic will intensify in coming years. Which should push reasonable policymakers to make it easier for older people to afford health insurance on their own, either by maintaining existing premium support, or by, say, opening up Medicare to people over the age of 50. But of course, the Republican plans are going in precisely in the opposite direction.

Everyone knows this, and what the Republicans are up to is massively unpopular – only sixteen percent of Americans said the House bill was a good idea, including only a third of Republicans, and the Senate bill will be even more unpopular. Why do this? Jamelle Bouie suggests this:

The Republican health care bill doesn’t solve any urgent problem in the health care market, nor does it represent any coherent vision for the health care system; it is a hodgepodge of cuts and compromises, designed to pass a GOP Congress more than anything. It is policy without any actual policy. At most, it exists to fulfill a promise to “repeal Obamacare” and cut taxes.

Perhaps that’s enough to explain the zeal to pass the bill. Republicans made a promise, and there are forces within the party – from hyper-ideological lawmakers and conservative activists to right-wing media and Republican base voters – pushing them toward this conclusion. When coupled with the broad Republican hostility to downward redistribution and the similarly broad commitment to tax cuts, it makes sense that the GOP would continue to pursue this bill despite the likely consequences.

But ultimately it’s not clear the party believes it would face those consequences.

They know better:

The 2018 House map still favors Republicans, and the party is defending far fewer Senate seats than Democrats. Aggressively gerrymandered districts provide another layer of defense, as does voter suppression, and the avalanche of spending from outside groups. Americans might be hurt and outraged by the effects of the AHCA, but those barriers blunt the electoral impact.

The grounds for political combat seem to have changed as well. If recent special elections are any indication – where GOP candidates refused to comment on signature GOP policies – extreme polarization means Republicans can mobilize supporters without being forced to talk about or account for their actual actions. Identity, for many voters, matters more than their pocketbooks. Republicans simply need to signal their disdain – even hatred – for their opponents, political or otherwise. Why worry about the consequences of your policies when you can preclude defeat by changing the ground rules of elections, spending vast sums, and stoking cultural resentment?

Bouie suggests they’re doing this because they can. And who is going to stop them?

It won’t be these people:

Chaos erupted outside the office of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) Thursday, shortly after Republican leaders unveiled their closely guarded plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Capitol police were seen physically removing demonstrators, many of whom were in wheelchairs and holding medical equipment, as they chanted their disapproval of the draft legislation.

“No cuts to Medicaid,” they said, while blocking hallway access from McConnell’s office.

The protest was reportedly organized by the group ADAPT, an advocacy organization for people with disabilities. Images and video recordings of the scene quickly circulated on social media…

While the dramatic scene unfolded, Democratic senators led by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) blasted the bill as “heartless” and a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Republicans shrugged. These were “defective” useless people after all, the leeches, although no Republican dared say that. That’s what Rush Limbaugh and conservative talk radio is for. Still there is an America of community, common cause, charity and collective responsibility:

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) ripped into Senate Republicans’ Obamacare repeal bill on Thursday, saying the proposal would pay for tax cuts for wealthy Americans with “blood money” that comes from cutting essential services for the poor, including Medicaid.

“It is finally clear how the Republicans were spending their time locked in those back rooms,” Warren said from the Senate floor, referring to a weeks-long secretive, GOP-only drafting process. “Now we know the truth.”

“Senate Republicans weren’t making the House bill better,” Warren continued. “Nope, not one bit. Instead they were sitting around a conference room table dreaming up even meaner ways to kick dirt in the face of American people and take away their health insurance.”

She did let it rip:

“Medicaid is the program in this country that provides health insurance to one in five Americans, to 30 million kids, to nearly two out of every three people in a nursing home. These cuts are blood money. People will die. Let’s be very clear. Senate Republicans are paying for tax cuts for the wealthy with American lives.”

She launched into examples of Americans affected by the cuts to Medicaid, including a senior living at home who would be unable to afford the help she needs to avoid moving into a nursing home, and a child born too early whose parents risk homelessness to pay for his care.

“Senate Republicans can wave their hands and say that everyone will be fine, but it is time for the rest of us to take a long, hard look at exactly what would happen to the people who have to live with the Republicans’ reckless cuts,” she said. “Senate Republicans know exactly what they are doing with this health care bill. Their values are on full display. If they want to trade the health insurance of millions of Americans for tax cuts for the rich, they better be ready for a fight. Because now that this shameful bill is out in the open, that’s exactly what they’re going to get.”

That’s the moral argument. She’s not Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand is dead. Elizabeth Warren is alive and kicking, and kicking back.

That must trouble Republicans, and Kevin Drum tells a curious personal story:

My mother grew up in a Republican family. When Herbert Hoover was on the radio, everyone listened. But later she became a Democrat. What happened?

Well, she went off to college. But not some bleeding heart lefty bastion. She went to USC, which was even more Republican in 1950 than it is now. She didn’t get indoctrinated by a bunch of fuzzy liberal professors.

So what caused the switch? I asked her once, and she said that during her college years she came to the conclusion that Republicans were just mean. So she became a Democrat.

This struck me because I’ve long used the exact same word in the privacy of my own thoughts. I can write a sophisticated critique of conservative ideology as well as the next guy, but the truth is that it mostly boils down to a gut feel that Republicans are mean. I’ve never said this out loud because it sounds so kindergarten-y, but there it is. I think Republicans are mean, just like my mother did.

But now our time has come. Donald Trump started it, with his contention that Paul Ryan’s health care bill was “mean.” Today, Barack Obama picked up the ball, writing on Facebook about the “fundamental meanness at the core of this legislation.” And then Chuck Schumer weighed in with a big red poster calling the Senate health care bill “meaner.”

So that’s that. It’s now okay to ditch the ten-dollar words and just spit it out. Republicans are mean.

Neal Gabler called that individualism untempered by common decency, but sometimes short words are better than long words. Not that it matters – everyone knows who’s in charge at the moment – for now.

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Everything That Good Honest Americans Should Hate

Those of us who graduated from college in 1969, as the curtain came down on the cultural/political/sexual/musical revolution that changed America and the world forever – if it did – turn seventy this year. That’s old, but we left the sixties behind long ago. Almost all of us moved on, led a full life, more or less, and retired from that final career in a series of careers that probably had little if anything to do with peace and love and flower-power and changing the world. That was a long time ago. That ended when everyone went home from Woodstock and took a long hot shower, to wash off the mud, and Richard Nixon settled down in the White House. Even the Vietnam War ended, eventually. Where have all the flowers gone? Disco and polyester leisure suits followed, and then grandchildren.

We let it all go, perhaps because we had won. No one now thinks that war in Vietnam was a fine idea. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 corrected a few racial problems, even if, in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that significant parts of the Voting Rights Act were now invalid, because things had changed. They suggested a rewrite, as if Congress would ever do that. Republicans want us to go back to 1962 or so, because black folks and other minorities keep voting for the wrong people – not them. Now there are all the new state-level rules that will make it hard for them ever to vote again – not poll taxes and absurd literacy tests – that would be illegal. Making obtaining the necessary new voter-ID cards an expensive and time-consuming process isn’t illegal – lots of stuff is expensive and time-consuming. Restricting the hours available to vote and not replacing broken voting machines, in certain districts, isn’t illegal either. Times are tough. States don’t have a whole lot of money. This is a prudent use of limited state funds, so they can fix potholes and all the rest. The net effect of all this is to undo what was done in the sixties.

That was a setback, and being slowly corrected now, but abortion is legal and no one has a problem with “the pill” any longer – except the Republicans, who do what they can to make it next to impossible to find a clinic that provides either. That also would undo what was won in the sixties, but that battle was won and will stay won. There’s no going back. And although Republicans hated the first bill Obama signed, in the first month of his first term, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act – all about women being able to do something about not receiving the same pay for the same work as men – they couldn’t argue women shouldn’t be paid the same as men for the same work – not after the sixties. They had to talk about how that act would hurt businesses and make trial lawyers rich – but they couldn’t argue with the concept. The little woman hadn’t stayed home, and happily dusted the furniture and then made dinner for her man, since the days of June Cleaver, and that was the fifties.

That decade, however, is problematic. Angry old white men, retired and on Medicare, and drawing Social Security, and getting a pension check each month, from back in the days when there were such things as fixed pensions – back in the day when the company hadn’t cheated and used up all the pension funds on absurd acquisitions, or to fund day-to-day operations when they screwed up, or to buy the CEO a third yacht – back in the day when they themselves “made things” – say they want their country back – a country with a manufacturing economy, not a service economy run on the damned net, and a coal economy too.

They voted for Trump, but that country doesn’t exist any longer. Our “postindustrial society” was first explained by the Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell in 1973 – heavy industry, steel, cars, appliances, aluminum, coal mining and oil production, was being overtaken by services — retailing, health care, travel, education, entertainment banking and whatnot. Robert Samuelson carefully explains that there’s no going back. Those votes for Donald Trump were wasted – but many don’t remember the fifties fondly anyway. Those days were conformist and stultifying. Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis couldn’t come soon enough, but they came along eventually, as did the sixties. Perry Como and Doris Day became dinosaurs and we all moved on. That was fine. Few wanted the fifties back – Joe McCarthy and people building bomb shelters in their back yards, and lynchings persisting in the South.

Forget that. The fifties sucked. The sixties sucked too – no one remembers “love beads” fondly – but America’s version of Apartheid finally ended, and there was a sexual revolution, and a workplace revolution regarding gender. Rights were asserted and then acknowledged, and then codified – and the music was pretty good too. Things changed.

Republicans may hate that but they should give it a rest. Everyone else moved on. The arguments are over. They were over a long time ago.

They won’t let go. Paul Waldman says that explains the special election in Georgia:

While a lot of was made of the absurd amounts of money spent on the race, the question of Donald Trump’s effect down-ballot or which voters would turn out, Republicans won by going back to a playbook they’ve used a thousand times before, one based on fear and contempt of culturally alien liberals.

In many ways, this race was unique – it’s not as though in 2018 there will be a national spotlight and $50 million poured into all 435 House districts. But if you weren’t watching closely, you may have missed the scorched-earth culture war campaign that Republicans ran against Democrat Jon Ossoff. They barely attempted to make a case for Karen Handel; instead, their argument was that Ossoff is basically a Hollywood San Francisco radical hippie anarchist lunatic controlled by – cover the children’s ears – Nancy Pelosi!

It seems they needed a hippie chick from the sixties:

That was the running theme of the television ads and direct mailers that flooded the district, convincing Republican voters that whatever misgivings they had about the Trump administration and however much Ossoff portrayed himself as a mainstream technocrat whose biggest priority was bringing high-tech jobs to metro Atlanta, nothing mattered more than their tribal hatred of liberals. You might think Karen Handel’s brand of extreme social conservatism (among other things she would outlaw not only same-sex marriage but also gay couples adopting children) would be a liability in a highly educated district like the Georgia 6th, but it wasn’t…

As Nate Cohn pointed out a few days ago, 13 of the 15 congressional districts with the highest levels of education in the country are safe Democratic districts; only Georgia’s 6th and a suburban Virginia district are in Republican hands. That’s why Democrats saw an opening in this election. They hoped that with this electorate, which was far more comfortable with Mitt Romney than with Donald Trump (Trump won the district by 2 points, while Romney won it by 23), a mainstream, non-threatening Democrat could win.

But he couldn’t.

The culture wars continue:

If Republicans can win on the culture war in Georgia’s 6th, they can do it almost anywhere.

That’s partly because they have so much practice. For half a century, they’ve been telling voters that Democrats are alien radicals who indulge criminal minorities and bring chaos and violence wherever they go. Richard Nixon rode that message to the White House in 1968 and Republicans have been doing it ever since. So Ossoff, Republicans said, was “not one of us,” the ultimate distillation of the culture war attack. As one ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee said over pictures of anarchists smashing windows and Kathy Griffin holding up Trump’s severed head, “D.C. liberals, Hollywood elites, this is who supports Jon Ossoff. Because Jon Ossoff is one of them. Childish. Radical. They’ve targeted Georgia, but we can stop them.”

Perhaps they can retroactively cancel Woodstock too, but this is how they roll:

While there may be legitimate reasons to ask whether Pelosi should remain the leader of House Democrats – we probably should debate whether the current Democratic leadership is making good strategic and investment decisions – that’s a separate topic from whether she has become a liability as a cultural symbol.

It’s certainly true that Pelosi is a villain for rank-and-file voters. Is that because of her politics? Of course not – her positions on issues are basically those of the entire Democratic Party. Is it because she’s from San Francisco? Of course – Republicans have been using “San Francisco” as a symbol for conservative baby boomers’ resentments for decades, a representation of all the drug-taking and free love and fun that the hippies had while the buzz-cut squares seethed with jealousy and contempt. Is it because Pelosi is an older woman? Oh, you bet it is. Just like Hillary Clinton, she has been the target of a nakedly misogynistic campaign of vilification for years, one that is now baked deep into Republican politics.

And if you’re not a regular consumer of conservative media, you might not realize just how relentless that campaign has been, how often Pelosi is held up by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and the rest of the talk radio/Fox News nexus as everything that good honest Americans should hate – which is why nothing Pelosi does actually matters. She barely appears on television, but she’s as potent a symbol for Republicans as ever. She could retire tomorrow, and I promise you, Republicans would still run a thousand ads with her face in them in 2018.

Or they’d replace her with a different villain:

We’ve seen again and again how effective that machine can be: One Democratic politician after another has begun with a profile as an inoffensive, hardworking, substantive public servant (think Dukakis, Gore, Kerry), then quickly turned into a monster who threatened everything Republican voters hold dear.

That may be so, but Jamelle Bouie argues that it’s more complicated that:

How should we understand the forces that gave Trump the election? A new data set moves us closer to an answer: in particular how to understand the voters who supported Barack Obama in 2012 only to back Trump in 2016. Its lessons have far-ranging implications not only for diagnosing Trump’s specific appeal but for whether such an appeal would hold in 2020.

Two reports from the Voter Study Group, which conducted the survey, give a detailed look at these vote switchers. One, from George Washington University political scientist John Sides, looks at racial, religious, and cultural divides and how they shaped the 2016 election. The other, from political scientist Lee Drutman, takes a detailed look at those divides and places them in the context of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Starting in different places, both Sides and Drutman conclude that questions of race, religion, and American identity were critical to the 2016 outcome, especially among Obama-to-Trump voters.

That’s no surprise. What’s interesting is what the importance of identity says about Donald Trump’s campaign. Put simply, we tend to think that Trump succeeded despite his disorganized and haphazard campaign. But the Voter Study results indicate that Trump was a canny entrepreneur who perceived a need in the political marketplace and met it.

Trump simply exploited the lingering lost culture wars of the sixties;

Whether or not they identified with a party, most people who voted in the 2016 election were partisans. “Approximately 83 percent of voters were ‘consistent partisans,'” writes Sides. In other words, they voted for the same major party in both 2012 and 2016. This is the typical case. But about 9 percent of Donald Trump’s voters had backed Obama in the previous election, equivalent to roughly 4 percent of the electorate. Why? The popular answer, or at least the current conventional wisdom, is economic dislocation. But Sides is skeptical. He concludes that economic issues mattered, but no more or less than they did in the 2012 election. The same goes for views on entitlement programs, on trade, and on the state of the economy in general. The weight of those issues on vote choice was constant between the two election years.

Something changed:

What changed was the importance of identity. Attitudes toward immigration, toward black Americans, and toward Muslims were more correlated with voting Republican in 2016 than in 2012. Put a little differently, Barack Obama won re-election with the support of voters who held negative views toward blacks, Muslims, and immigrants. Sides notes that “37 percent of white Obama voters had a less favorable attitude toward Muslims” while 33 percent said “illegal immigrants” were “mostly a drain.” A separate analysis made late last year by political scientist Michael Tesler (and unrelated to the Voter Study Group) finds that 20 to 25 percent of white Obama voters opposed interracial dating, a decent enough proxy for racial prejudice. Not all of this occurred during the 2016 campaign – a number of white Obama voters shifted to the GOP in the years following his re-election. Nonetheless, writes Sides, “the political consequences in 2016 were the same: a segment of white Democrats with less favorable attitudes toward these ethnic and religious minorities were potential or actual Trump voters.”

It seems they were reminded of the sixties:

What caused this shift in the salience of race and identity (beyond the election of a black man in 2008) and augured an increase in racial polarization? You might point to the explosion of protests against police violence between 2012 and 2016, and the emergence of Black Lives Matter, events that sharply polarized Americans along racial lines. And in the middle of 2015 arrived the Trump campaign, a racially demagogic movement that blamed America’s perceived decline on immigrants, Muslims, and foreign leaders, and which had its roots in Donald Trump’s effort to delegitimize Barack Obama as a noncitizen, or at least not native-born.

And then it gets complicated:

Drutman plots the electorate across two axes – one measuring economic views, the other measuring views on identity – to build a political typology with four categories: liberals, conservatives, libertarians, and populists. Liberals, the largest single group, hold left or left-leaning views on economics and identity. Libertarians, the smallest group, hold right-leaning views on economics but leftward beliefs on identity. Conservatives are third largest, with right-leaning views on both indices, while populists – the second largest group – are the inverse of libertarians, holding liberal economic views and conservative beliefs on identity.

Most populists, according to Drutman, were already Republican voters in the 2012 election, prizing their conservative views on identity over liberal economic policies. A minority, about 28 percent, backed Obama. But four years later, Clinton could only hold on to 6 in 10 of those populist voters who had voted for Obama. Most Democratic defectors were populists, and their views reflect it: They hold strong positive feelings toward Social Security and Medicare, like Obama voters, but are negative toward black people and Muslims, and see themselves as “in decline.”

And there you have it:

This is a portrait of the most common Obama-to-Trump voter: a white American who wants government intervention in the economy but holds negative, even prejudiced, views toward racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. In 2012, these voters seemed to value economic liberalism over a white, Christian identity and backed Obama over Romney. By 2016, the reverse was true: Thanks to Trump’s campaign, and the events of the preceding years, they valued that identity over economic assistance. In which case, you can draw an easy conclusion about the Clinton campaign – even accounting for factors like misogyny and James Comey’s twin interventions, it failed to articulate an economic message strong enough to keep those populists in the fold and left them vulnerable to Trump’s identity appeal. You could then make a firm case for the future: To win them back, you need liberal economic populism.

You need a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but even then nothing is guaranteed:

Usually, voters in the political crosscurrents, like Drutman’s populists, have to prioritize one of their chief concerns. That’s what happened in 2008 and 2012. Yes, they held negative views toward nonwhites and other groups, but neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney ran on explicit prejudice. Instead, it was a standard left vs. right ideological contest, and a substantial minority of populists sided with Obama because of the economy.

That wasn’t true of the race with Trump. He tied his racial demagoguery to a liberal-sounding economic message, activating racial resentment while promising jobs, entitlements, and assistance. When Hillary Clinton proposed a $600 billion infrastructure plan, he floated a $1 trillion one. When Clinton pledged help on health care, Trump did the same, promising a cheaper better system. Untethered from the conservative movement, Trump had space to move left on the economy, and he did just that. For the first time in recent memory, populist voters didn’t have to prioritize their values. They could choose liberal economic views and white identity, and they did.

This fact makes it difficult to post hypotheticals about the election. It’s possible a more populist campaign would have prevented those Obama defections. But a Trump who blurs differences on economic policy is a Trump who might still win a decisive majority of those voters who want a welfare state – for whites. In the context of 2016, that blend of racial antagonism and economic populism may have been decisive.

But all is not lost:

The good news for Democrats – and the even better news for the populist left – is that unless Trump makes a swift break with the Republican Party, his combined economic and identity-based appeal was a one-time affair. In 2020, if he runs for re-election, Trump will just be a Republican, and while he’s certain to prime racial resentment, he’ll also have a conservative economic record to defend. In other words, it will be harder to muddy the waters. And if it’s harder to muddy the waters, then it’s easier for Democrats – and especially a Democratic populist – to draw the distinctions that win votes.

That’s a pleasant thought, but for us who graduated from college in 1969, as the curtain came down on the cultural/political/sexual/musical revolution that changed America and the world forever, may not be around to see that America and the world really did change forever – in spite of Donald Trump. We all have expiration dates. But things did change. Donald Trump graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in May 1968 with a Bachelor of Science degree in economics. Somehow he missed it all.

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Having Nothing to Say

It’s good to have something to say. There was Tuesday, July 27, 2004 – the place was Boston – Barack Obama delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention to all the partisans who wanted to toss out George Bush, who had already become a disaster. Far worse was to come, but so far, enough was enough. What the hell were we doing in Iraq? There never were any weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein hadn’t been behind 9/11 or anything else. And what was with all the tax cuts for the rich? Ordinary people were in trouble. Economic conservatism – supply-side economics that gave all the breaks to corporations and their owners (the suppliers) and not the workers (as if creating demand didn’t matter) – was a scam. Preemptive wars weren’t going to transform the Middle East either – there would only be more wars – and social conservatism was cruel – racism in disguise. And the people in red states were idiots. It was time to go to war with them – perhaps for truth, justice and the American way. They hate us, we hate them, and that wasn’t going to change – not now – maybe not ever. The nation had been split in two, into two tribes, as many said. There was no going back. Choose your side. Stand with your tribe.

Obama could have riffed on that, but he had something to say to both sides:

Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America.

The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.

Everyone knew that they were looking at the next President of the United States – assuming John Kerry lost, which he did, and assuming that George Bush would be even more of a disaster than he had already been. He was. It was Obama’s turn. He had something to say and Hillary Clinton didn’t stand a chance. She was a tribal Democrat, or at least an establishment Democrat. Obama was post-tribal. John McCain didn’t stand a chance either. His tribe had blown it. Obama was beyond all that. None of them had anything to say that hadn’t been said before. Obama did.

That always wins elections. That may be why Donald Trump is president. He had a lot to say, most of it nasty – no more Muslims and Mexicans and gays and whatnot. Hillary Clinton had vast experience and positions and position papers that acknowledged complexity and ambiguity and called for carefulness and no sudden moves that could get us all killed. She knew her stuff but there was no clear, single message in any of that. Voters seemed to assume she had nothing to say, really, and that the Democrats had nothing to say either. Donald Trump had something to say. It was often absurd, but it was something. Something beats nothing every time.

It was over for the Democrats. After Obama, they had nothing to say. Bernie Sanders had plenty to say, and still does, but he’s not even a Democrat – he’s an Independent who calls himself a Social Democrat, in the European sense, who caucuses with the Democrats. He publicly steps back from that party that has nothing to say, because he does. He would have helped them, but they wouldn’t give him the nomination – their loss. And they will lose, again and again, and now they’ve lost again:

Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, retaining a seat that has been in GOP hands since 1979 after a grueling, four-month campaign that earned the distinction of being the most expensive House race in history.

Handel’s win will bring fresh attention to a beleaguered Democratic Party that has suffered a string of defeats in special elections this year despite an angry and engaged base of voters who dislike Trump.

It may also embolden Republicans in Washington to press ahead on an ambitious policy agenda that has yielded few legislative victories since Trump’s inauguration in January. Most immediately, the election result could bring momentum to Senate Republicans’ efforts this week to craft their version of a major revision to the Affordable Care Act.

“We need to finish the drill on health care,” Handel said during her victory speech here Tuesday. Chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” erupted before her.

Trump is the man of the hour. He always has something to say, but Karen Handel also knew that Trump is a fool:

Handel’s victory, however, revealed as much about Trump’s lingering problems among Republicans as it did the challenges facing Democrats. In a ruby-red district that her Republican predecessor won in November by 23 points, Handel struggled with Trump’s looming presence over the race. She won not with an embrace of the president but by barely mentioning his name…

Handel, who will be the first woman elected to Congress from Georgia, repeatedly ducked opportunities to echo Trump’s populist roar and instead presented a classic Republican case to voters, all while deflecting the barrage of questions about Trump’s latest tweets or his handling of investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

She decided to say not much of anything about anything – at least nothing new – but she was better than that other guy:

Ossoff, 30, a former congressional staffer, raised more than $23 million, built a devoted grass-roots following and courted Republicans by bemoaning “wasteful” spending.

In another Tuesday tweet, Trump took a swipe at Ossoff’s centrist positioning and dismissed him as a liberal who “wants to raise your taxes to the highest level and is weak on crime and security, doesn’t even live in district.” Ossoff lives just outside the district with his fiancée.

As Handel’s lead climbed late Tuesday, a senior White House official sent The Washington Post a text message: “They haven’t figured out how to beat Trump.”

They haven’t figured out how to beat Trump? She never mentioned him, but that didn’t matter:

For Democrats, Ossoff’s loss was demoralizing, coming after months of bitter infighting in the wake of Trump’s victory.

His defeat is also likely to lead to more criticism from the wing of liberal activists who want a more confrontational style embodied by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). They have already complained about the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s willingness to support a more moderate candidate in Ossoff, while more progressive candidates in special elections in Montana and Kansas this year were left largely in the lurch.

It seems that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee doesn’t want their candidates saying things, but the other side also wanted to talk about other things:

Ossoff’s loss raises real concerns about the continued potency of Republican attacks against Democrats by tying them to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The anti-Ossoff campaign seemed to veer from issue to issue given the week, but the one constant thread over the last four months has been linking him to Pelosi.

According to one Republican involved in the effort, the Democratic leader had a name identification of 98 percent among voters in the Georgia district, and her disapproval ratings were 35 percentage points higher than her approval numbers.

So Karen Handel, who wouldn’t mention Trump if she could help it, was really running against Nancy Pelosi, and Donald Trump won – or something like that. Luckily, her opponent made a miscalculation:

The Ossoff approach was to toe the middle of the road politically. His calls for civility, at a time of a nontraditional brand of politics from Trump, served as an indirect contrast to the president – a polite rebuke while trying not to offend those who voted for him.

“There is a great hunger here in Georgia, across the political spectrum, for leadership that is focused on civility, that is humble, that’s committed to delivering results instead of notching partisan wins or winning the day on Twitter,” he said Monday in an interview.

No, something (mean) beats nothing (much) every time.

Paul Kane explains that with a brief example:

Jeff Jacobson epitomizes the liberal conundrum: Deep down he wanted to back a warrior, but he found himself working for a high priest preaching civil resistance.

The 65-year-old recent retiree from the local Treasury Department office had not been much of a political volunteer, but this year was different. “It was Trump initially,” Jacobson, 65, said outside the field office for Democrat Jon Ossoff.

Yet Jacobson found himself volunteering for someone who studiously avoided confronting President Trump, trying to win over enough Republican voters in the suburbs north of Atlanta to flip a district that had been in GOP hands for decades.

Kane generalizes from that:

The most passionate Democratic activists have wanted a full-frontal assault on Trump and congressional Republicans, angrily denouncing party leaders for not aggressively supporting more progressive candidates.

Indeed, more than 200 miles to the north, a dramatically underfunded Democrat, Archie Parnell, nearly pulled off an upset victory in a House seat that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee largely ignored. In Ossoff, Democrats hoped they had found a potential new path to defeating Republicans with a message of peace and civility. They calculated that the fiery rage, often associated with supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), would not win over moderate Republicans and centrists, whose support Ossoff needed to have any chance to win a district that Tom Price, the six-term congressman who is Trump’s health secretary, won by more than 20 percentage points in November.

So Ossoff chose the high-priest route instead of the fierce warrior. It was civil disobedience rather than civil unrest. And he still lost, by an even wider margin than the almost forgotten Parnell.

But maybe it wasn’t a total loss:

Democrats were declaring that just by making the Georgia race so competitive, they set a marker for how tough the 2018 midterms will be for Republicans. Many observers noted that this district is one of 35 that either voted for Hillary Clinton or that Trump won by less than four percentage points, making it a key focal point for next year’s bid to win the 24 seats needed for Democrats to take the majority.

Democrats noted that by other measures, nearly 70 more Republican-held seats will be more friendly than Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in the midterm elections.

This was Georgia. That was the problem:

Privately, Democratic strategists said even before the votes were counted Tuesday that Ossoff’s civility campaign would be mirrored only in more Republican-leaning districts, and that a more aggressive anti-Trump campaign would be waged by candidates in longtime swing districts.

That might be wise, and Jennifer Rubin says that Democrats did well enough here:

The rational response is that this race does not indicate either that the Republicans are cooked in 2018 or that they can breathe a sigh of relief and continue to cling to Trump. The district, we need to remember, went to Tom Price by 23 percentage points in 2016, and to Trump by only 1.5 points. If a district rated as safely Republican in past years is now a virtual tossup, that’s one sign that Republicans under Trump have an uphill climb to reach highly educated, suburban voters. And, as the New York Times’ Alex Burns put it, “The Sixth is still a really Republican district, and the element of surprise was an asset Ossoff had in the first round but not the vote tonight.” If Democrats can be faulted, it was in unduly raising expectations in a district that is rated as 9.5 percentage points more Republican than the nation as a whole.

But that still leaves the Democrats in disarray:

Democrats will continue to debate whether they should focus more on health care or on Trump’s scandals and whether to veer far left or hew to the center-left. Advocates of the health-care-heavy approach would say the results would have been different had Ossoff concentrated even more intensely on the GOP’s plans to roll back the Affordable Care Act. In reality, the Democrats did exceptionally well in a district no one would have expected them to win six months ago with an atmosphere in which both health care and Trump’s Russia scandal were front and center. Unfortunately for Democrats, the race will not resolve the internal debate as to where the party should put its emphasis. Moreover, by the time 2018 rolls around, Trumpcare will either be a reality or have crashed and burned.

But there is this:

We should remember that the single biggest determinant of midterm results is the favorability of the sitting president. Right now, that should keep Republicans up at night.

Democrats can take solace in seeing their candidates vastly over-perform in what should be easy seats for Republicans.

Josh Marshall almost agrees with that:

There’s no question and there should be no denying that this is a very disappointing loss. It is a very Republican district. It was vacated by HHS Secretary Tom Price who has been a key architect of Trumpcare, which is now readying to scythe its way through the tens of millions of Americans who gained coverage from Obamacare. It was even the seat once held by Newt Gingrich. Taking it from the GOP would have been a big victory both substantively and symbolically. It would also have sent a clear signal that the GOP’s House majority is living on borrowed time…

The district is relatively diverse for a GOP district and educated and affluent. In other words, it’s made up of just the kind of Republicans who proved most resistant to Trump. The question has been whether that Trump unpopularity would apply to a conventional Republican who, by normal standards, is well suited to the district. The answer from tonight seems to be, yes. Ossoff dramatically over-performed and almost won the seat.

Almost isn’t a marginal win of course. You have to win to win.

And that worries him:

What Democrats need to resist at all costs is the temperamental inclination to fall into spasms of self-loathing over this defeat – specifically, the idea that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the party because of this loss. I saw one Democrat on Twitter tonight ask if Ossoff’s loss didn’t mean “the Democratic party apparatus needs a total overhaul on every single level?”

Maybe the Democrats do need a fundamental overhaul – but doing 10 to 15 points better than a House candidate has done in this district since the 1970s simply isn’t evidence for that.

Marshall does worry about Democrats:

There’s also a toxic desire on the part of many to use this painful defeat as an opening to re-litigate intra-party grievances. Losing is hard. Taking a loss and getting up the next day to keep fighting to get to the next level takes endurance and guts. Many cannot resist the temptation to trade that sting for a toxic self-validation. All I can say to that is that parties build majorities by finding ways to unite competing factions over common interests and goals – something Donald Trump should help with a lot. They almost never get there when they are locked in internecine struggle or when either faction thinks it can or does destroy the other. That’s just not how it works…

This is a big disappointment. But remember, by any objective measure these races show a Democratic Party resurgent and a GOP on the ropes. These seats came open because they were vacated by people Trump picked for cabinet appointments. They got those picks because they came from safe seats. They are by no means a cross-section of House seats. The thing to do is learn what we can from coming up just short and move on to the next fight.

Fine, but you still have to have something to say, and Matthew Yglesias addresses that:

Karen Handel didn’t argue that the Republican Party’s health care bill is a good idea (it’s very unpopular) or that tax cuts for millionaires should be the country’s top economic priority (another policy that polls dismally). Instead, her campaign and its allies buried Ossoff under a pile of what basically amounts to nonsense – stuff about Kathy Griffin, stuff about Samuel L. Jackson, stuff about his home being just over the district line, stuff about him having raised money from out of state – lumped together under the broad heading that he’s an “outsider.”

Much of this was unfair or ridiculous. And the stuff that wasn’t unfair – like the location of his home – is honestly pretty silly. None of this has anything to do with the lives of actual people living in the suburbs of Atlanta or anywhere else.

But there was no response to that:

Ossoff’s team was aware, of course, that the district is not accustomed to voting for Democrats and that he was vulnerable to this kind of attack. They attempted to counter this move by positioning Ossoff as blandly as possible – just a kind of nice guy who doesn’t like Donald Trump – and dissociating him from any hard-edged ideas or themes. It’s a strategy that makes a certain amount of sense, but it also makes it hard to mobilize potential supporters. And by lowering the concrete stakes in the election, it also makes it easier for trivial and pseudo-issues to end up dominating in the end.

Yes, have something to say, but Democrats have been here before:

An important subtext of both the special election in Georgia and the earlier House special election in Montana was a continuation of the primary season argument between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

In the wake of Clinton’s defeat, Sanders’s camp tended to argue that tactically, Democrats needed to do more to “win back” white working-class voters who’d defected from the party. Naturally, they felt the way to accomplish that was by adopting new more left-wing stances on economic issues. Clinton’s camp tended to argue that tactically, Democrats needed to continue the strategy of targeting the kinds of places where Trump underperformed – districts with large minority populations and/or highly educated white populations. Naturally, they felt the way to accomplish that was by adopting a Clinton-esque message focused on pragmatism and downplaying ideology.

In short, be bland and nonthreatening, but maybe not:

If your opponents are unpopular enough, it’s certainly possible to win elections this way. But especially for the party that has a more difficult time inspiring its supporters to turn out to vote, that’s an ominous sign. Right now on health care and many other issues, Democrats suffer from a cacophony of white papers and a paucity of unity around any kind of vision or story they want to paint of what is wrong with America today and what is the better country they want to build for the future. And until they do, they’re going to struggle to mobilize supporters in the way they need to win tough races.

That means they’ll keep losing, again and again. Donald Trump had something to say. It was often absurd, but it was something. Something beats nothing every time. But then, Barack Obama also had something to say, and it wasn’t absurd. He won the presidency twice, easily. The nebbish lost in Georgia. That’s the lesson here. Stand for something, and say so – or go home.

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Toxic Leadership

So, Sunday afternoon it was a long chat with the Director of Theater Warfare Studies at the Army War College in Carlisle, not far from Gettysburg. He decides on all the courses – and teaches one or two of them – the guy who decides on all the seminars and guest speakers and whatnot. He knows a few things. After West Point, it was tank warfare in Kuwait when we threw Saddam out of there, then that posting to Istanbul, to liaise, as they say, then this command and that stateside, mixed with five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan – operational planning in the end, with our NATO partners in Kabul – and then a stint at the Pentagon. We do talk now and then, sometimes about Erdogan and Turkey – he’s fluent in Turkish and can explain how all the Kurdish subgroups are quite different and how the legacy of Ataturk is now in shambles – but more often we talk about hard power and soft power and national interests – and this was one of those times.

It’s complicated. The Kurds in the north are talking about splitting off from Iraq and forming their own country – after all we did to get a unified Iraq up and running again – and no one knows how that would work. No one knows how they’d ally with other regional Kurdish groups, some of which want to split from Turkey, some of which are full of bad folks – real, not imagined, terrorists. Turkey is pissed off. And how does this relate to the Sunni-Shiite civil war in the rest of Iraq? Some of the Kurds are Sunni, and some, if not most, are Shiites. Hell, some of them may be Buddhists, or Mormons. The Kurds are an ethnic group. Religion is secondary – and the Iraqi Kurds are our best fighters against ISIS – which could destroy the new Iraq – which they want to leave. What the hell are we supposed to do with that?

Meanwhile, we’re about to clear ISIS out of Mosel, in Iraq, and Raqqa, in Syria. Those Sunni assholes will soon be gone. The Kurdish peshmerga will take care of the guys in Syria and Iraq military will take care of the other guys in Iraq, with our help – but of course Iraq is a Shiite nation now. Saddam Hussein was Sunni – even if the original Sunni assholes, al-Qaeda, hated him, because he was too secular. We got rid of Saddam Hussein but we have asked the current Iraqi government to include some Sunnis in their government now – just a few, please, to create something like a unified Iraq. They’re not all Saddam Hussein.

The current Iraqi government shrugs, and they’ve invited other Shiites in to help clear out the Sunni menace. Iran’s elite Quds Force, a Special Forces branch of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard, has been fighting alongside the Iraqi military, in Iraq, fighting against the bad guys, kind of for us – kind of with us. Iran did help us after 9/11 – but we still decided they were part of the Axis of Evil. They are now our allies against ISIS – or not. It’s complicated. It also complicated because Iranians are Persian, not Arab at all – another ethnic distinction – even if they are Shiites. Farsi, modern Persian, is an Indo-European language, written in Arabic script. They are more like us than we’d like. What are we supposed to do with that?

And then there was President Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia and his speech that some called bizarre, unseemly, unethical and un-American – where he spoke out against Islamist extremism, even though Saudi Arabia has sponsored extremist Wahhabi mosques and imams all over the world. Osama bin Laden had been a Saudi citizen, as were fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers. Go figure. As for the Sunni monarchies and military dictatorships like that run by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, Trump promised to stop pestering them about human rights and political freedoms. Trump aligned the United States with the Sunnis. They weren’t Shiites, like Iran – but also like our brand new Iraq. What? Oh well. Shiites sponsor terrorism – Hezbollah and Hamas. Sunnis sponsor terrorism – al-Qaeda and then ISIS – but perhaps they’ll scale that back. That seemed to be the calculation. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is a graduate of the Army War College in Carlisle, by the way. It’s complicated.

And then it got stranger. Perhaps Donald Trump didn’t know we run our air operations in the region from our base in Qatar. There are eleven-thousand military folks at the base, our military, and there are fifteen thousand American civilian contractors in Qatar – and the regional headquarters of CENTCOM are there too – and the Saudis and Egypt and the rest of the Sunnis nations decided to punish Qatar. They cut them off – a full blockade. They’d starve them out, for being Sunnis too friendly with Iran and okay with Hezbollah and Hamas. Trump cheered the Saudis on. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to clean up that mess – and Turkey sent food and supplies to Qatar. After all, when Erdogan put down that coup and took full dictatorial control of Turkey, Qatar sent five hundred of their troops to help him out. And Turkey is our ally and a member of NATO too. It’s complicated.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron has just swept the French parliamentary elections – a young and smart compassionate internationalist blew everyone away. Their Trump, Marine Le Pen, will have to get used to permanent obscurity. Macron joins Canada’s Justine Trudeau and Germany’s Angela Merkel, and now the Chinese, with the retired Barack Obama lurking in the background, on the side of compassionate or at least sensible internationalism – and on the side of doing something about climate change and actual free trade. Theresa May had Britain opt out.

That polarizes the world and that’s one pole. The other pole seems to be the grand alliance of Putin and Trump and Erdogan and el-Sisi and the Saudis, and perhaps, in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte – the group of strongmen who take no shit from anyone. Each country has its own version of “America First” of course.

How did it come to this? It’s complicated. We talked about Army Field Manual 6-22 Leader Development – and about “toxic leadership” too. The Army has been worried about that – but that was more than enough talk for a Sunday afternoon. The rest of the family was bored silly. Still, there was Afghanistan.

We’re still there. How does that end? Can it end? Can we win? How would we know if we did?

The issue there may be toxic leadership too. It was time to remind the Colonel of another Colonel, Andrew Bacevich, who latest book is America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History – because Bacevich knows a thing or two too. The Los Angeles Times was sitting on the table. There was an op-ed there from Bacevich, who knows toxic leadership when he sees it:

Donald Trump cultivated an image of being unambiguously the guy in charge. Now as commander in chief, he is opting for a more detached approach. When it comes to war, he functions less as a full-time CEO than as a part-time board chairman.

This represents a sharp departure from established American practice. Ever since President Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur butted heads over who should run the Korean War, presidents have played an assertive, at times even intrusive, role in managing military matters. Not Trump, however. Although nominally the boss, Trump appears content to let his generals run things.

This is not leadership:

For weeks, his administration has been mulling over a request from Gen. John Nicholson, current commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, to increase the number of U.S. troops committed to that war, which began back when today’s young recruits were still in diapers. To break what he optimistically described as a stalemate, Nicholson was asking for a “few thousand” reinforcements.

Rather than ruling on Nicholson’s request, pending since early February, Trump has passed the buck to the general he has put in charge of the Pentagon, James N. Mattis. Having himself served as senior Marine officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Mattis today pretty much owns both of those wars along with lesser ongoing campaigns in Syria, Somalia and Yemen.

That Nicholson will get more troops appears certain – on Friday, the AP reported an addition of 4,000, although the Pentagon said no determination had been made. In any case, Trump is leaving it to Mattis to decide how many and, by extension, to explain why they are needed and how they are to be employed. Thus far, no such explanation has been forthcoming.

This is not leadership at all:

On Tuesday, when Mattis appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) needled him about the absence of a persuasive rationale. “We’re now six months into this administration,” McCain complained. “We still haven’t got a strategy for Afghanistan.”

The Defense secretary’s response was both forthright and evasive. “We are not winning in Afghanistan right now,” he conceded, while promising that “we will correct this as soon as possible.” Mattis then unleashed a cloud of blather, promising “a change in our approach” so as “to do things differently” and devise “a more regional strategy” involving “across-the-board whole of government” collaboration. He offered no specifics.

That’s why we’re still there:

The fact is that every couple of years since 2001, policymakers in Washington and commanders in the field (including McChrystal) have trotted out plans “to do things differently” in Afghanistan. Those plans have come in a multitude of colors and a variety of sizes. None have come anywhere close to “winning.”

Trump surely knows this. We cannot say for certain why the president has chosen to distance himself from this war that he inherited. But one possibility is this: Having learned through painful experience to recognize a losing proposition, he has no intention of being left holding the bag for this one.

That’s what’s toxic here:

The savvy Mattis must suspect that he is the designated fall guy. If not, he will discover it next year or the year after when Trump relieves himself of responsibility for a still un-won war and looks to pin the blame on someone else.

And so this goes on and on, until it doesn’t:

For now we await the general with the courage to say: “Some wars can’t be won. Afghanistan falls in that category. To persist further is madness.”

Perhaps it is, and there is this:

Former defense officials say civilian oversight of the military is not just an important check in a healthy democracy, it ensures that larger strategic considerations are taken into account – while others question whether the Trump administration has a broader strategy at all. Former officials also stressed that even if a president delegates some decisions, there’s no avoiding the fact that ultimate responsibility rests with the commander-in-chief.

“I think it’s important that he give troop number responsibility to Secretary Mattis, but not the decision, because to put more troops in after a long period of decreasing is a policy change for America,” retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a commander of US troops and International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan, told CNN.

“It is deciding we’re going to push the clock further, we are going to stay involved longer, we are going to engage the American people and the Afghan people. That’s a presidential level decision that he has to own,” McChrystal said of Trump.

And this:

Some, like Stephen Miles, the director of Win Without War, a group focused on promoting a more progressive national security policy, have said they worry this is an attempt by Trump to wash his hands of responsibility for these wars.

“President Trump has delegated this decision to Secretary of Defense James Mattis in a seeming effort to absolve responsibility for sending US troops into harm’s way,” Miles said. “But make no mistake, President Trump is commander-in-chief, and he will be held accountable for once again escalating this endless war in Afghanistan.”

And this:

Derek Chollet, a former defense official in the Obama administration, noted that military decisions have costs, and that civilian leadership has the responsibility for assessing them. That means maintaining a broader view that takes in more than just the military aspects of a campaign, an assessment that is crucial to US national interests.

“If we decide to dramatically escalate our role in Afghanistan, well, that’s got to come from somewhere. Someone has to pay for that and we have to absorb that risk somewhere,” Chollet said.

And if the civilian leadership isn’t engaged, the danger is that the “military doesn’t have the perspective of the entire country in mind,” Chollet said. “If we end up escalating conflicts at the expense of other priorities in the federal budget, in our foreign policy, that’s a problem.”

Yeah, but all of that is so complicated. Trump likes to keep things simple.

Things are never simple:

The United States is becoming more perilously drawn into Syria’s fragmented war as it fights on increasingly congested battlefields surrounding Islamic State territory.

On Sunday, a U.S. fighter jet downed a Syrian warplane for the first time in the conflict. By Monday, a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia, had suspended a pact used to prevent crashes with the U.S.-led coalition in the skies over Syria and was threatening to target American jets.

Separately, Iran said that it had launched a barrage of missiles into Islamic State territory in eastern Syria. That assault marked Tehran’s first official strike against the extremist group in Syria, and it signposted the reach of its military might against foes across the region.

There they go again – Iran helping us out – but this is serious:

As the major powers on the opposite sides of Syria’s war intensify operations against the Islamic State, the risks of an accidental conflagration appear to be growing by the day.

The United States intervened in Syria to roll back Islamic State forces from a self-declared caliphate that once stretched deep into Iraq. But the American role has unsettled Assad’s allies, threatening confrontation with Russia and thrusting Iranian-backed militiamen in a race with a U.S.-favored rebel force to reach the Islamic State’s eastern strongholds.

But it is what it is:

The U.S. military confirmed late Sunday night that a U.S. F/A-18 Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 fighter-bomber.

The confrontation took place near the onetime Islamic State stronghold of Tabqa, hours after Syrian government forces attacked U.S.-backed fighters, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. It was the first time that the American military has shot down a Syrian warplane during the six-year conflict.

On Monday, Russia condemned that strike as a “flagrant violation of international law” and said its forces will treat U.S.-led coalition aircraft and drones as targets if they are operating in Syrian airspace west of the Euphrates River while Russian aviation is on combat missions.

That messes things up:

In a statement Monday, the SDF warned that it would retaliate in the face of further aggression from pro-Assad forces, raising the possibility that the United States could be forced to deviate further from its stated policy in Syria, which involves targeting Islamic State militants only.

If it again comes under attack by pro-Assad forces, Washington may be forced to defend the coalition at the risk of sparking a tinderbox of tensions with Iranian and Syrian troops in the northern province.

“The only actions that we have taken against pro-regime forces in Syria – and there have been two specific incidents – have been in self-defense. And we’ve communicated that clearly,” said Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry said it was suspending the communication channel through which such messages had been shared in order to minimize the risk of in-flight incidents between Russian and U.S.-led coalition aircraft operating over Syria.

And then it was time to bash Trump:

In Moscow, officials said that Sunday’s shoot-down was intended as a message aimed squarely at Russia.

Frants Klintsevich, deputy head of the defense and security committee of the Russian upper house of parliament, called the incident “an aggression and a provocation.”

“It looks like Donald Trump’s United States is a source of a brand-new danger both in the Middle East and the world at large,” Klintsevich wrote on his Facebook page.

That’s the result of toxic leadership, or as Fred Kaplan argues, the result of no leadership at all:

Just because the military has the authority to take certain actions, that doesn’t mean it should take those actions, especially when doing so takes a tense conflict up a notch. Sunday’s exchange does, after all, mark the first time in this six-year civil war that a Syrian jet fired on this particular U.S.-backed militia and the first time that a U.S. unit shot down a Syrian jet – thus marking an escalation in the fighting and in America’s involvement. Most presidents would have wanted to think through the next few steps before setting a course of action in response to the Syrian attack. But not this president.

A former senior White House official told me “Obama would have had three NSC meetings on this by now” (we spoke around noon on Monday). Many military officers disparaged Obama for “micro-managing” conflicts. Sometimes they had a point; sometimes they just didn’t like it when a president took his role as commander in chief so seriously. This latest confrontation between American and Syrian air forces stands as a case in point of why presidents sometimes should – even must – step in to the decision-making process. The proper response to the Syrian strafing isn’t a tactical issue or a routine step spelled out in a military field manual. It’s a matter of strategy, of high policy, requiring the decision of the highest policymakers.

In fact, a real leader would have seen this coming:

The major powers in this baroquely complicated war have now set a course toward direct confrontation. This is when diplomats usually step in to calm things down. In a statement released shortly after the incident, a Pentagon spokesman said, “We do not seek conflict with any party in Syria other than ISIS.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in Beijing at the time of the incident, called on all the countries involved in the Syrian war to “coordinate their actions,” adding, “We urge everyone to avoid acting unilaterally, to respect the sovereignty of Syria.”

Beyond these gestures, it’s unclear what happens next. One uncertainty involves Trump himself. His advisers are divided on whether to beef up or wind down America’s involvement in Syria; and within the hawkish faction, there are divisions on whether to restrict the fight to ISIS, take more active steps to oust Assad, or do more to contain Iran.

During the 2016 election campaign, Trump derided those who wanted to oust Assad, arguing that ISIS was the enemy and that weakening the regime in Damascus could strengthen ISIS. Assad was also “a bad guy,” Trump often said, but it was silly to fight him and ISIS at once. And yet here we are, fighting ISIS and Assad at once – to what end, and in tandem with what broader political efforts or goals?

That’s a good question:

It’s a particularly delicate time for the United States to lack a basic strategy. As ISIS is on the verge of losing Mosul and Raqqa – once its former strong points in Iraq and Syria, respectively – the next phase of the region’s civil war will likely focus on redrawing the boundaries between the two countries. This phase could be even bloodier than the last, as it will determine who controls the land and its economic resources – in short, who wins the political struggles that have undergirded not only the current civil war but myriad wars in the region for decades, arguably for centuries.

Those are big questions, but there are even bigger questions:

What are the United States’ interests in the region? Where we do we want to see this conflict pan out? Who should get what, who should determine who gets what, and how should any of these decisions be made? What should we do to facilitate this process? Or should we just leave and let the local powers work things out? These are issues of statecraft, which U.S. commanders on the ground or even retired four-star generals running the Pentagon are not trained to make and, under the Constitution, are not supposed to make. These are the kinds of looming crises that led many observers, of all political stripes, to warn many months ago that Donald Trump has no business being president.

Perhaps so, but he is president. And things are complicated. And he doesn’t want to believe they are complicated. And he lets others handle the messy details. And then he can blame them when things go terribly wrong. And things have already gone terribly wrong. In short, he’s toxic. But he is the Colonel’s commander-in-chief. That’s the challenge. Try to clean up the mess. At least someone knows what’s what. It was an interesting Sunday afternoon.

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A Sunday Pause

There’s no Sunday evening column – a family reunion far from Hollywood takes precedence.

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Exhausting the Possibilities

America should be exhausted by now. How long has Donald Trump been president? There’s a widget for that – 147 days at this moment – but it seems much longer. Every day is “an extraordinary day in Washington” – no one has ever seen anything like this before. Donald Trump did what? Donald Trump said what? Canada is our enemy? America will run on coal from now on? Jared Kushner will bring peace to the Middle East for the first time since Israel became a state seventy years ago, in his spare time? No one knows what to expect next, but that’s exhausting.

That’s also absurd. If every day is “an extraordinary day in Washington” then, if words mean anything, every day in Washington is quite ordinary. America will just have to get used to the absurd. Donald Trump will do something outrageous. Donald Trump will say something outrageous. It will look like the world is falling apart, and it probably is – but we’ve all been here before.

It’s that Watergate thing. Everyone remembers the hearings. Everyone watched. Sam Ervin was charming – just a simple country lawyer, but deadly. Fred Thompson got to ask “what did the president know and when did he know it?” Alexander Butterfield dropped a bomb – there was a White House taping system and there were tapes. There really was a smoking gun in there – Nixon working out a cover-up. There was nowhere for Nixon to hide. The Supreme Court later forced him to hand those over. The decision was unanimous. Firing Archibald Cox hadn’t helped. They had Nixon on obstruction of justice of the nastiest of kinds – but the star witness in the hearings was John Dean, the White House attorney. Dean knew everything. Dean revealed everything, because he wasn’t going to take the fall for Nixon. He too had participated in obstruction of justice, at the edges. He’d cop to that – he spent a few months in prison – but he knew he wasn’t the problem, and then everyone knew he wasn’t the problem. Nixon was the problem. The House introduced articles of impeachment. There would be a trial in the Senate and Nixon would be convicted – there were more than enough votes for that. Barry Goldwater and the rest of the Republican leadership walked over to the White House and told Nixon it was over. Nixon resigned.

That will never happen again – maybe. Presidents really shouldn’t fire the guy investigating what they’ve been up to. That looks bad. Trump firing James Comey, the head of the FBI, looked bad. This could be Watergate again – maybe. It was “an extraordinary day in Washington” after all. The New York Times tag-team of Michael Shear and Charlie Savage and Maggie Haberman reports that:

President Trump escalated his attacks on his own Justice Department on Friday, using an early-morning Twitter rant to condemn the department’s actions as “phony” and “sad!” and to challenge the integrity of the official overseeing the expanding inquiry into Russian influence of the 2016 election.

Acknowledging for the first time publicly that he is under investigation, Mr. Trump appeared to accuse Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, of leading what the president called a “witch hunt.” Mr. Rosenstein appointed a special counsel last month to conduct the investigation after Mr. Trump fired the FBI director, James B. Comey.

“I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director!” Mr. Trump wrote, apparently referring to a memo Mr. Rosenstein wrote in May that was critical of Mr. Comey’s leadership at the FBI.

Trump seems as nutty as Nixon there. He had already said, to Lester Holt, on national television, that the Rosenstein memo had nothing to do with anything – he had already decided to fire Comey, because of the Russia thing. Does he even listen to himself?

Others listen to him:

The nation’s law enforcement agency is under siege, short-staffed because of delays in filling senior positions and increasingly at odds with a president who had already engaged in a months-long feud with the government’s intelligence agencies.

Several current and former assistant United States attorneys described a sense of listlessness and uncertainty, with some expressing hesitation about pursuing new investigations, not knowing whether there would be an appetite for them once leadership was installed in each district after Mr. Trump fired dozens of United States attorneys who were Obama-era holdovers.

They too are exhausted, for good reason:

In the five weeks since Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey, he has let it be known that he has considered firing Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel leading the Russia investigation. His personal lawyer bragged about firing Preet Bharara, the former United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, who was let go as part of the mass dismissal of top prosecutors. Newt Gingrich, an ally of the president’s, accused Mr. Mueller of being the tip of the “deep-state spear aimed at destroying” the Trump presidency.

Inside the White House, those close to the president say he has continued to fume about the actions of Justice Department officials, his anger focused mostly on Mr. Rosenstein for appointing Mr. Mueller and on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime political ally whose decision to recuse himself from the Russia case in March enraged Mr. Trump.

Jeff Sessions was supposed to protect him, damn it. He was supposed to stop this nonsense, not step aside:

What the president wanted out of the investigation was simple, several people close to him said: a public statement that he was not under a cloud. What he got instead were reports of Mr. Mueller’s intention to investigate him for possible obstruction of justice…

He is frustrated, friends say, and unsure what to do – apart from tweeting, which he views as the most direct and effective way of defending himself and venting his anger.

That anger burst into public on Twitter late Thursday and continued Friday, as the president repeatedly assailed the legal forces arrayed against him. He accused the news media of pursuing a “phony” obstruction story and accused law enforcement and congressional committees of conducting “the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history.” He said the investigations are led by “some very bad and conflicted” people.

By Friday morning, his focus was on Mr. Rosenstein, though the president never used his name, and his tweet oversimplified and misstated the truth.

Rosenstein appointed Mueller to do his thing, without any supervision or input from Rosenstein or anyone in the FBI – as an “independent” counsel. Rosenstein is heading nothing here, but he was still defensive:

The outburst came after an oddly worded statement late Thursday from Mr. Rosenstein complaining about news reports based on leaks.

“Americans should exercise caution before accepting as true any stories attributed to anonymous ‘officials,’ particularly when they do not identify the country – let alone the branch or agency of government – with which the alleged sources supposedly are affiliated,” Mr. Rosenstein wrote.

His statement followed two articles by The Washington Post that cited unnamed officials. One said Mr. Mueller’s investigation had widened to include whether Mr. Trump committed obstruction of justice. The other said the investigation was examining financial transactions involving Jared Kushner, the president’s adviser and son-in-law. After Mr. Rosenstein’s statement, The Post updated the article about Mr. Kushner online so that its first sourcing reference was to “U.S. officials.”

The highly unusual statement raised the question of whether Mr. Trump or some other White House official had asked Mr. Rosenstein to publicly discredit the reports.

That was never going to work:

Reaction was swift. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said she was “growing increasingly concerned” that Mr. Trump might attempt to fire both Mr. Mueller and Mr. Rosenstein.

“If the president thinks he can fire Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein and replace him with someone who will shut down the investigation, he’s in for a rude awakening,” she said in a statement. “Even his staunchest supporters will balk at such a blatant effort to subvert the law.”

She was thinking of Watergate, and there are parallels:

The apparent expansion of Mr. Mueller’s investigation into whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice, including by firing Mr. Comey, has raised the question of whether Mr. Rosenstein, a witness to and participant in the events that culminated in that ouster, may also have to recuse himself from overseeing the inquiry.

If he were to do so, or resign or be fired by Mr. Trump, acting attorney general duties for the inquiry would fall to the department’s No. 3 official, Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand.

Ms. Brand has never served as a prosecutor. She advised the Justice Department on selecting judicial nominees under President George W. Bush, and she served as a Republican appointee on the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

There was Saturday, October 20, 1973 – Attorney General Elliot Richardson refused to fire Archibald Cox. He resigned instead. Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus did the same. The guy third in line, Solicitor General Robert Bork, as acting head of the Justice Department, suddenly, did the deed – and now Rachel Brand is Bork.

She may not be happy about that, but things are equally tense in the White House:

Members of Donald Trump’s presidential transition team were told to save materials relevant to the federal investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to a memo obtained by Politico and The New York Times.

The instruction, which came from the team’s lawyer, Kory Langhofer, details how both volunteers and aides must “preserve any physical and electronic records that may be related in any way to the subject matter of the pending investigations.”

The time has come:

The memo includes specific instructions for travel-related materials, as well. According to Politico’s reporting, transition-team members must turn over: “emails, voicemails, text messages, instant messages, social media posts, Word or WordPerfect documents, spreadsheets, databases, telephone logs, audio recordings, videos, photographs or images, information contained on desktops, laptops, tablet computers, smartphones or other portable devices, calendar records, and diary data.”

Failure to follow protocol, the memo warns, “Could result in criminal or civil penalties, and could form the basis of legal claims, legal presumptions, or jury instructions relating to spoliation of evidence.”

Things were that tense, and this tense:

President Donald Trump has added another high-profile lawyer to his personal legal team as the special counsel investigation heats up.

John Dowd, who investigated Pete Rose for Major League Baseball and represented John McCain during the Keating Five Scandal, among other high-profile clients, has joined the president’s legal team, according to two people familiar with the pick. Dowd declined to comment Friday.

The addition of Dowd, a 76-year-old former prosecutor who has practiced law in Washington for decades, adds an experienced hand in the investigation. He joins Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s longtime New York lawyer, Mark Bowe, who works with Kasowitz, and Jay Sekulow.

Trump will be prepared, but maybe not prepared for this:

House Russia investigators are planning to call on Brad Parscale, the digital director of President Donald Trump’s campaign, as the congressional and federal probes dig into any possible connections between the Trump digital operation and Russian operatives, congressional sources said this week.

The House Russia investigation is planning to send an invite to Parscale soon, as they begin scheduling witnesses over the summer, sources said. The Senate intelligence committee is also interested in how Russian bots were able to target political messages in specific districts in critical swing states, although it is not clear if Parscale will be called before the Senate panel as well.

The news from the House comes as federal investigators have dug into Jared Kushner’s role overseeing Trump’s data operation – although he has not been identified as a target of the probe. Kushner is expected to talk soon with Senate investigators about the campaign’s data operation.

Parscale played a critical role behind the scenes on the Trump campaign, directing online spending and voter targeting with the use of a highly sophisticated data bank built by the Republican National Committee.

This is not like Nixon and his tapes, but close enough:

Senate investigators in particular have been interested in looking for a link between the prevalence of fake news that supported Trump and was pinpointed in key areas of Rust Belt states that ultimately flipped from blue to red — and helped Trump secure the White House.

“There have been reports that their ability to target this information, some reports at least saying that in the last week of the campaign in certain precincts in Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania there was so much misinformation coming talking about Hillary Clinton’s illnesses or Hillary Clinton stealing money from the State Department or other. It completely blanked out any of the back and forth that was actually going on in the campaign,” Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said at a March 30 hearing.

Warner then added, “One of the things that seems curious is would the Russians on their own have that level of sophisticated knowledge about the American political system, if they didn’t at least get some advice from someone in America?”

That might be Jared and Brad. Perhaps, like Nixon, Donald Trump should brood, but David Remnick says it’s more complicated than that:

The yearning in the character of Donald Trump for dominance and praise is bottomless, a hunger that is never satisfied. Last week, the President gathered his Cabinet for a meeting with no other purpose than to praise him, to note the great “honor” and “blessing” of serving such a man as he. Trump nodded with grave self-satisfaction, accepting the serial hosannas as his daily due. But even as the members declared, Pyongyang-style, their everlasting gratitude and fealty to the Great Leader, this concocted dumb show of loyalty only served to suggest how unsustainable it all is.

The reason that this White House staff is so leaky, so prepared to express private anxiety and contempt, even while parading obeisance for the cameras, is that the President himself has so far been incapable of garnering its discretion or respect. Trump has made it plain that he is capable of turning his confused fury against anyone in his circle at any time.

It’s not just the tweets:

Trump’s egotism, his demand for one-way loyalty, and his incapacity to assume responsibility for his own untruths and mistakes were, his biographers make plain, his pattern in business and have proved to be his pattern as President.

Veteran Washington reporters tell me that they have never observed this kind of anxiety, regret, and sense of imminent personal doom among White House staffers – not to this degree, anyway. These troubled aides seem to think that they can help their own standing by turning on those around them – and that by retailing information anonymously they will be able to live with themselves after serving a President who has proved so disconnected from the truth and reality.

And that reminded him of Alexander Butterfield:

As an undergraduate, at UCLA, Butterfield knew H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and, after serving in Vietnam and being stationed in Australia, he called on Haldeman, who was Nixon’s most important assistant. Haldeman made Butterfield his deputy. Butterfield got what every D.C. bureaucrat craves most – access. He worked on Nixon’s schedule, his paper flow, his travel; he offered advice, took orders, no matter how bizarre or transitory. Butterfield could not have been more “in the smoke” than he was then. He quickly discovered that Nixon was a fantastically weird and solitary man – rude, unthoughtful, broiling with resentment against the Eastern élites who had somehow wounded him, be it in his imagination or in fact. Butterfield had to manage Nixon’s relations with everyone from his Cabinet members to his wife, Pat, who on vacations resided separately from the President. Butterfield carried out Nixon’s most peculiar orders, whether they involved barring a senior economic adviser from a White House faith service or making sure that Henry Kissinger was no longer seated at state dinners next to the most attractive woman at the occasion. (Nixon, who barely acknowledged, much less touched his own wife in public, resented Kissinger’s public, and well-cultivated, image as a Washington sex symbol.)

Butterfield experienced what all aides do, eventually, if they have the constant access; he was witness to the unguarded and, in Nixon’s case, the most unattractive behavior of a powerful man. Incident after incident revealed Nixon’s distaste for his fellow human beings, his racism and anti-Semitism, his overpowering personal suspicions, and his sad longings. Nixon, the most anti-social of men, needed a briefing memo just to make it through the pleasantries of a staff birthday party.

And that led to the tapes:

In February, 1971, Nixon came up with the idea of putting a voice-activated taping system in his offices. Butterfield was charged with the installation. Haldeman told Butterfield that Nixon wanted the system installed on his telephones and in the Oval Office, his office in the Executive Office Building, the Cabinet Room, and the Lincoln Sitting Room. Kissinger was not to know; neither was his senior-most secretary, Rose Mary Woods. Only a few aides and the President were aware that no conversation was now truly confidential. Tiny holes were drilled into the President’s desktop to make way for the microphones. A set of Sony 800B tape recorders was set up in the White House basement.

It was all for the sake of “history,” Nixon said. Kennedy and Johnson had taped selectively, but Nixon wanted it all for the record – his own records – but no one was to know. “Goddamn it, this cannot get out,” Nixon told Butterfield. “Mum’s the word.”

In the end, of course, the tapes were Nixon’s undoing. In July, 1973, when Senate Watergate investigators asked Butterfield point-blank whether the White House taped conversations, Butterfield decided that his loyalty was not to the “cesspool” of Nixon’s White House but to the truth.

Remnick wonders if that will happen again:

Will Bannon, Spicer, Conway, Sessions, Kushner, and many others who have been battered in one way or another by Trump keep their counsel? Will all of them risk their futures to protect someone whose focus is on himself alone, the rest be damned?

Who knows? Josh Marshall only knows this:

It is very difficult to get my head around the question of whether President Trump will fire Robert Mueller. Trump’s personal attack on Mueller yesterday followed by a personal attack on Rod Rosenstein this morning portends a trajectory that ends with the firing of both men. We don’t know that will happen. The consequences of it happening are so dire that it is hard to imagine it will happen. Yet that appears to be more or less precisely what happened with James Comey. Trump is a man of anger and predictable habits. It would be naïve in the extreme to assume Trump won’t eventually fire both men.

This time, however, there’s no happy ending:

If and when Trump fires Mueller he will have shown through his actions that he will not allow any investigation of Russia and his campaign to go forward. Bob Mueller is one of the most respected law enforcement officials in the country. His integrity and independence are considered beyond reproach. If one insists on looking under the veil at his own political leanings, he is a Republican – both a registered Republican and the appointee, as FBI Director, of a Republican (George W. Bush). If Mueller is not acceptable to Trump as an investigator, clearly no legitimate investigator is or ever will be…

If Trump fires Mueller he will have made clear that no investigation of the bundle of Russia-related issues is acceptable. Anyone who took it on after Mueller would know that as soon as the probe heated up or press reports confirmed the seriousness of the investigation that person would also be fired. Would another legitimate person even accept an appointment after that? It’s hard to see. It may be best to say that accepting an appointment under those conditions would be prima facie evidence of unfitness for the job.

That makes this extraordinary:

I cannot think of a set of facts in which a President makes any clearer that they will use the statutory powers of the presidency to render themselves above the rule of law. That sounds like a hyperbolic statement, I know. But look at the facts we’ve just walked through.

That means that Trump fires both men, and:

At that point, the logical move within our constitutional system is for the Congress to move toward impeaching the President and removing him from office. Whether anything like that is in the offing seems quite doubtful – at least at first.

I actually think it’s possible that such a move would push Trump into severe jeopardy in the Senate. But impeachments don’t happen in the Senate. The trial happens there. Impeachment happens in the House. And there I think the prospects are far more dubious.

At that point we will move in uncharted waters.

Expect it:

My biggest concern – based in part on just observing Trump but specifically how Comey’s firing went down – is that Trump will just do this in the middle of the night (at least figuratively but perhaps literally). With no warning. Perhaps no warning even to himself. I fear that it will all go down quickly and impulsively so no other Republicans outside the White House have a chance to walk him through the consequences of his actions. He does it and it’s a fait accompli.

And that’s that, or not:

My best guess is that Trump will not fire Mueller. But I think I base that on the same mix of experience, logic and gut sense that would have led me to believe that firing Comey was out of the question.

America should be exhausted by now. Every day is “an extraordinary day in Washington” – no one has ever seen anything like this before. But we have. Now we have to see it again. That’s what’s extraordinary here.

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