Our Reckless Caretaker

Donald Trump knows how to fire up a crowd. He did that as a candidate and continues to do that as president, but it’s not an Obama thing, where the crowd, rightly or wrongly, sees a brighter future. Trump is angry, and he works his crowds into seething anger – about the present state of things. In his inauguration speech he said the “American carnage” would end here and now. That carnage seemed to have something to do with Muslims and Mexicans and the Chinese, and maybe the gays, and Nancy Pelosi and her kind, and previous Republican administrations too. George W. Bush, as he was leaving the event, seems to have muttered this – “That was some weird shit.”

Consider the source. Bush’s younger brother, Jeb – the seemingly sensible one in the family – with all the Republican money in the world behind him – dropped out of the race early. Trump fired up the crowd and “low energy Jeb” was gone – but not because Jeb said the wrong things or had the wrong ideas. Jeb was mocked for his careful thoughtfulness, not the thoughts. There was no defense against that. An angry crowd wants anger. On the day of Trump’s inauguration Jeb’s older brother still didn’t get it.

Most Americans still don’t get it. Trump’s average approval rating is now the lowest since Gallup began presidential approval surveys in 1953 – although ninety-six percent of the forty percent who voted for him think he’s doing just fine. They’re the angry ones, and that Gallup stuff is probably “fake news” anyway. Trump has also been perpetually angry at “fake news” – those “facts” which just aren’t facts at all. That makes the press the “enemy of the people” – even if the press points out they can verify this or that or the other thing from multiple sources and from things said on record, and on video too.

This came to a head when one of Trump’s spokesmen, a spokeswoman actually, Kellyanne Conway, defended Trump on Meet the Press. She told Chuck Todd that Trump was merely offering “alternative facts” – and Todd’s jaw dropped – and he then argued that alternative facts are, well, falsehoods. Kellyanne Conway smiled enigmatically. There’s no winning that argument either.

But some things did happen. In fact, a few years ago this happened:

From October 1 through 16, 2013, the United States federal government entered a shutdown and curtailed most routine operations because neither legislation appropriating funds for fiscal year 2014 nor a continuing resolution for the interim authorization of appropriations for fiscal year 2014 was enacted in time. Regular government operations resumed October 17 after an interim appropriations bill was signed into law.

During the shutdown, approximately 800,000 federal employees were indefinitely furloughed, and another 1.3 million were required to report to work without known payment dates.

This was their way to get what they couldn’t get in House or Senate votes or in the courts:

The Republican-led House of Representatives, in part encouraged by conservative senators such as Ted Cruz and conservative groups such as Heritage Action, offered several continuing resolutions with language delaying or defunding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly known as “Obamacare”). The Democratic-led Senate passed several amended continuing resolutions for maintaining funding at then-current sequestration levels with no additional conditions.

This didn’t work out well for the Republicans, and it was stupid idea in the first place:

On October 1, 2013, many aspects of the Affordable Care Act implementation took effect. The health insurance exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act launched as scheduled on October 1. Much of the Affordable Care Act is funded by previously authorized and mandatory spending, rather than discretionary spending, and the presence or lack of a continuing resolution did not affect it. Some of the law’s funds also come from multiple-year and “no-year” discretionary funds that are not affected by a lack of a continuing resolution.

The Republicans finally figured that out and gave up:

Late in the evening of October 16, 2013, Congress passed the Continuing Appropriations Act, 2014, and the President signed it shortly after midnight on October 17, ending the government shutdown and suspending the debt limit until February 7, 2014.

This cost the federal government seven or eight billion dollars, and cost the Republicans even more:

According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted several months following the shutdown, 81% of Americans disapproved of the shutdown, 86% felt it had damaged the United States’ image in the world, and 53% held Republicans in Congress accountable for the shutdown.

Luckily, by that time, the fancy computer systems at the health insurance exchanges were freezing up due to crappy programming, so the Republicans got to scream that this showed that Obamacare was a total failure. People forgot the shutdown for a bit. Then the Obama team fixed the software and people then forgot about the software issues too. Everyone moved on, but the government did shut down. That’s a fact. And people hated that. That’s a fact too. And they hated the Republicans for being total assholes. That’s a fact too.

There are no alternative facts here, so why is Donald Trump now almost giddy about shutting down the government again, now? Kelsey Snell and Robert Costa report that he is considering that:

President Trump and White House officials pressed congressional Republicans on Sunday to use the looming threat of a government shutdown to win funding for a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico, a top priority for the administration as it nears the symbolic 100-day mark.

Trump wants funding to be included in a spending measure that would keep the government open past April 28, a determined effort that has prompted a possible standoff with lawmakers in both parties, who hope to avert a federal closure next weekend.

Trump wants his wall or at least one legislative win in his first one hundred days:

Trump’s push for fast action on his pledge to build the border wall is part of a mounting and, at times, tense scramble inside the administration to kick-start the president’s agenda, even if it risks dire political consequences. It follows weeks of frustration within the White House over inaction and stalemates on Capitol Hill over big-ticket items such as health care and tax cuts.

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said in an interview Sunday with The Washington Post that the president and his advisers remain “strong” in their commitment to securing funding for border security and a wall.

This nice, but now Trump has to deal with “his” party:

The timing promises a week of high drama on the Hill. The Senate returns Monday night, and the House returns Tuesday from a two-week recess, leaving just three days when both chambers will be in session to wrangle out a funding agreement. Negotiators worked throughout the break, but thus far a deal has not been struck.

The wall, which experts say would cost $21.6 billion and take 3½ years to construct, has emerged as a crucial sticking point for the White House, with the president insisting privately and publicly that progress toward its funding and eventual construction must be showcased this week.

“Congress is right to be nervous, but that’s Trump’s style to be aggressive, ambitious, right out of ‘The Art of the Deal,'” said William J. Bennett, a conservative commentator and close friend of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). “Everyone seems to be getting used to that and how Trump doesn’t want the half loaf but the whole loaf.”

This will not go well:

It remained unclear Sunday whether moderates within the GOP could persuade the White House to avoid a shutdown. Democrats have insisted that they will not vote for any spending bill that gives the White House money or flexibility to begin construction of a border barrier. They believe that the GOP will have to either abandon Trump’s demand or assume political responsibility if a shutdown occurs.

“The burden to keep it open is on the Republicans,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. “Building a wall is not an answer. Not here or any place.”

It seems that everyone remembers 2013 and who got the blame, and the Democrats are making sure they do, but President Trump is new at this:

Inside the White House on Sunday, West Wing aides made calls to congressional allies, while the president tweeted and reached out to several advisers, according to three officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.

Trump’s tweets included a shot at Democrats in which he drew parallels between border-wall funding and continued federal payments for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. Some Trump associates said that they believe Democrats may be willing to deal on border funding if those payments are put on the table this week during cross-party talks.

“ObamaCare is in serious trouble. The Dems need big money to keep it going – otherwise it dies far sooner than anyone would have thought,” Trump tweeted.

By law, Trump has to make those regular federal payments of subsidies to the insurance companies – his job is to faithfully execute the law of the land – but there’s a lawsuit about those payments. He could not make those payments until that’s settled. Millions of the poor and elderly and gravely ill would be left high and dry – and that would be the Democrats fault. He’s got them over the barrel:

The tweets did little to assuage concerns created earlier in the day when White House budget director Mick Mulvaney suggested that Trump might not sign a spending bill that does not meet his demands.

“Will he sign a government funding bill that does not include funding for the border wall?” Chris Wallace, host of “Fox News Sunday,” asked Mulvaney during a televised interview.

“We don’t know yet,” Mulvaney responded.

Mulvaney said that the White House expects Democrats to cave on the border wall in exchange for guaranteed payments under the ACA.

Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer laughed in his face:

Democrats believe that voters will blame Trump for a shutdown, particularly if congressional leaders omit wall funding from a spending deal. Democrats and GOP leaders appeared to be nearing a spending agreement last week before Trump ramped up his demands.

In short, both sides are ignoring him:

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is among a group of prominent Senate Republicans who have said publicly that they hope to avoid a border wall fight this week.

“I think that’s a fight worth having and a conversation and a debate worth having for 2018,” Rubio said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “If we can do some of that now, that would be great. But we cannot shut down the government right now.”

And there’s this:

Mulvaney’s hardline stance is also odds with a White House faction convinced that a government shutdown would be cataclysmic for an administration already struggling to prove its ability to govern, according to GOP aides in the White House and Congress who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing talks.

Republican leaders have signaled that they will concentrate this week on keeping the government open, even if that means ignoring White House calls for action on other major priorities, such as rewriting the tax code and overhauling the ACA.

Trump is alone on this, and Josh Marshall dives deeper:

It didn’t occur to anyone to take the federal government hostage to extort policy changes from political opponents until the advent of the Newt Gingrich Speakership.

Before they become notorious reputational debacles, Gingrich was quite clear about what he was doing. He would shut the government down, break President Bill Clinton’s will with the pressure and bend Clinton to his will and policy dictation. There were two shutdowns under Clinton and the Republican Congress. There was one under President Obama in 2013 and a debt ceiling crisis in 2011 which wasn’t a shutdown but had the same legislative hostage taking dynamics. The one recurring pattern is that shutdowns happen in the context of divided government. To be more specific, they happen when there is a Democratic President and Republicans in control of one or two houses of Congress. It simply never occurred to anyone before now that there would be a shutdown crisis when one party had unified control of the entire government still less that a President whose party controlled Congress would threaten to shut the government down to extort policy concessions from a party that controls nothing.

And yet, here we are… The White House will cut off Obamacare subsidies unless Democrats agree to fund Trump’s Wall.

Marshall is not impressed:

For the moment, let’s observe and pass over the fact that this whole effort has a distinctly mafia feel to it, even down for the dollar for dollar semantics. Legislative hostage taking which appears to have become habitual for Republicans has a certain general logic when it is about budget cutting. But here there’s no apparent opposition to the subsidies. Democrats can have as much of them as they want – as long as they agree to fund Trump’s wall. It’s straight up extortion, without even the pretense of ideological opposition to the policies being threatened.

And it’s not going to work:

Perhaps here Trump is simply bluffing. Maybe he’ll get distracted and move on to something else next week. But I get the sense that this is a serious threat. And I get the sense the White House might go through with the threat because I think they believe they are in a strong position even though they’re in a weak position.

That’s fairly obvious:

The President’s Wall is not popular. For much of the country it is a divisive, bad idea. Even those who do not oppose it per se do not view it as a high priority. One illustrative data point: a late March AP/NORC poll found that 58 percent opposed new funding for a wall while only 28 percent support it. It’s very unpopular. Notably this is about spending. Remember, “who’s gonna pay for the wall?” Mexico!

So what happened to Mexico paying? Trump continues to pretend that he is somehow compelling Mexico to pay for the wall on some sort of inter-state layaway plan. But clearly this is nonsense. That central premise of the campaign, impose a national humiliation on Mexico by forcing them to pay for a wall on the border is out the door, forgotten. Americans are going to pay for it and it is not popular.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, Obamacare is more popular than it has ever been. Indeed, the failed repeal attempt has made it more popular. The repeal debacle also solidified key elements of how the public sees the law. Popularity of the law called Obamacare has become unfastened from the fate of those who receive care under it.

That changes everything:

Obamacare provides coverage for more than 20 million people. Any replacement or change to the law will be and was this spring evaluated in terms of the numbers of people who lost or gained coverage. House Republican arguments about gaining the freedom to lose or abandon your coverage went nowhere. Moderate Republicans and many non-moderates (Tom Cotton, for example) were stung by the public backlash against changes that would lose people coverage. What the White House is threatening is a cut off of subsidies which would destabilize and possibly collapse Obamacare exchanges leading to loss of coverage or higher premiums.

In other words, President Trump is now threatening the Democrats with doing the thing that terrified many Republicans out of repealing Obamacare only a month ago.

We have already seen from the repeal fight that those developments are politically toxic. President Trump and his aides appear to view Obamacare beneficiaries as Democrats’ charges, something akin to family members the President can take hostage and threaten to injure or kill to extort concessions. This is a rather dire miscalculation of the politics of the situation. Democrats have made great political sacrifices to maintain coverage under Obamacare. But the people who are likely to suffer political damage by this action are not Democrats but rather congressional Republicans, indeed Trump himself. After all, that’s why Obamacare repeal went down in flames in the first place. One might say that the eventual harm is to beneficiaries. But there’s little reason for Democrats to think they’d lose this fight. Indeed, a fair analysis of the situation suggests the best way to protect beneficiaries is to call the President’s bluff. After all, they just won basically the same fight a month ago. The simple reality is that the President is threatening to set himself and his party on fire unless Democrats relent.

In short, the Democrats have Trump over a barrel:

The President is demanding Democrats vote funds for his deeply unpopular wall which he promised Mexico would pay for or he’ll try to sabotage Obamacare exchanges in a way likely to damage him and congressional Republicans. This is an almost comically weak political hand. The relative popularity of each policy makes that so. The ruthless and cynical effort to threaten harm to ordinary beneficiaries as a way to extort money for the wall makes it only more so.

And there’s this:

The Democrats are the party of government. This is a reality that all sides concede, whether they see it as an honor or a stain. Republicans are the ones who talk about shrinking the government until it is small enough that it can be strangled in a bathtub. It’s Republicans who talk about government being the problem not the solution. It’s Republicans who rail against big government and often government workers. When the public sees that someone is shutting down the government, cutting government services, furloughing employees, Republicans will always tend to get the blame. This would mostly be the case even if it weren’t the case that it’s always Republicans who are in fact engineering the shutdowns or threatening them. It’s no different from the widely understood reality that the public tends to credit Republicans more on national security issues because they believe Republicans are the more bellicose, war-fighting party. On the question of continuity in government services, caring if the government gets shut down, Democrats have inherent credibility Republicans simply lack.

What this amounts to is that this is a fight Republicans and the Trump White House will have a very, very hard time winning. But I don’t think President Trump knows that.

That may be the real problem:

Can the Trump White House be this legislatively inept? This self-deluding? Of course, they can. It’s an empirical reality we see every day. It’s how we got to three months into the administration with no major legislation at all getting passed.

And as for the empirical reality Americans see every day, David Remnick offers this:

For most people, the luxury of living in a relatively stable democracy is the luxury of not following politics with a nerve-racked constancy. Trump does not afford this. His Presidency has become the demoralizing daily obsession of anyone concerned with global security, the vitality of the natural world, the national health, constitutionalism, civil rights, criminal justice, a free press, science, public education, and the distinction between fact and its opposite. The hundred-day marker is never an entirely reliable indicator of a four-year term, but it’s worth remembering that Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama were among those who came to office at a moment of national crisis and had the discipline, the preparation, and the rigor to set an entirely new course. Impulsive, egocentric, and mendacious, Trump has, in the same span, set fire to the integrity of his office.

We did elect a man of alternative facts:

Trump appears to strut through the world forever studying his own image. He thinks out loud, and is incapable of reflection. He is unserious, unfocussed, and, at times, it seems, unhinged. Journalists are invited to the Oval Office to ask about infrastructure; he turns the subject to how Bill O’Reilly, late of Fox News, is a “good person,” blameless, like him, in matters of sexual harassment. A reporter asks about the missile attack on Syria; he feeds her a self-satisfied description of how he informed his Chinese guests at Mar-a-Lago of the strike over “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen.”

And we’re getting used to this sort of thing:

This Presidency is so dispiriting that, at the first glimmer of relative ordinariness, Trump is graded on a curve. When he restrains himself from trolling Kim Jong-un about the failure of a North Korean missile test, he is credited with the strategic self-possession of a Dean Acheson. The urge to normalize Trump’s adolescent outbursts, his flagrant incompetence and dishonesty – to wish it all away, if only for a news cycle or two – is connected to the fear of what fresh hell might come next. Every day brings another outrage or embarrassment: the dressing down of the Australian Prime Minister or a shout-out for the “amazing job” that Frederick Douglass is doing. One day NATO is “obsolete”; the next it is “no longer obsolete.” The Chinese are “grand champions” of currency manipulation; then they are not. When Julian Assange is benefiting Trump’s campaign, it’s “I love WikiLeaks!”; now, with the Presidency won, the Justice Department is preparing criminal charges against him. News of Trump’s casual reversals of policy comes with such alarming regularity that the impulse to locate a patch of firm ground is understandable. It’s soothing. But it’s untenable.

But he us who he is:

Trump emerged from neither a log cabin nor the contemporary meritocracy. He inherited his father’s outer-borough real-estate empire – a considerable enterprise distinguished by racist federal-housing violations – and brought it to Manhattan. He entered a world of contractors, casino operators, Roy Cohn, professional-wrestling stars, Rupert Murdoch, multiple bankruptcies, tabloid divorces, Mar-a-Lago golf tournaments, and reality television. He had no real civic presence in New York. A wealthy man, he gave almost nothing to charity. He cultivated a kind of louche glamour. At Studio 54, he said, “I would watch supermodels getting screwed on a bench in the middle of the room.” He had no close friends. Mainly, he preferred to work, play golf, and spend long hours at home watching TV. His misogyny and his low character were always manifest. Displeased with a harmless Palm Beach society journalist named Shannon Donnelly, he told her in a letter that if she adhered to his standards of discretion, “I will promise not to show you as the crude, fat and obnoxious slob which everyone knows you are.” Insofar as he had political opinions, they were inconsistent and mainly another form of performance art, part of his talk-show patter. His contributions to political campaigns were unrelated to conviction; he gave solely to curry favor with those who could do his business some good. He believed in nothing.

By the mid-nineties, Trump’s investment prospects had foundered. Banks cut him off. He turned to increasingly dubious sources of credit and branding opportunities at home and abroad. A typical deal, involving a hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan, included as partners an Azerbaijani family distinguished for its outsized corruption and for its connections to some Iranian brothers who worked as a profit front for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. There is little mystery as to why Trump has broken with custom and refuses to release his tax returns. A record of his colossal tax breaks, associations, deals, and net worth resides in those forms. It may turn out that deals like the one in Baku will haunt his Presidency no less than his grotesque conflicts of interest or any of the possible connections to Russia now being investigated by the FBI and congressional committees will.

That may catch up with him, or this will:

In the transitional period between Election Day and the Inauguration, Obama’s aides were told that Trump, who has the attention span of a hummingbird, would not read reports of any depth; he prefers one- or two-page summaries, pictures, and graphics. Obama met with Trump once and talked with him on the telephone roughly ten times. The discussions did little to change Obama’s mind that Trump was “uniquely unqualified” to be President. His grasp of issues was rudimentary, at best. After listening to Obama describe the framework of the nuclear agreement with Iran – a deal that Trump had previously assessed as “terrible” and vowed to dismantle – he conceded that maybe it made sense after all. In one of the many books published under his name, “Trump: Think Like a Billionaire,” he said, “The day I realized it can be smart to be shallow was, for me, a deep experience.”

There’s much more, but this will do for a summary:

In 1814, John Adams evoked the Aristotelian notion that democracy will inevitably lapse into anarchy. “Remember, democracy never lasts long,” he wrote to John Taylor, a former U.S. senator from Virginia, in 1814. “It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.” As President, Donald Trump, with his nativist and purely transactional view of politics, threatens to be democracy’s most reckless caretaker, and a fulfillment of Adams’s dark prophecy.

We now have our reckless caretaker, with his alternative facts, who can fire up a crowd, and with a stroke of his pen he can veto any appropriations bill “his” Republicans and all Democrats agree to, to keep the government from shutting down. He’ll shut it down, to get what he wants, even if that has never worked for anyone before. That’s a fact, but he makes up facts. That made him rich. Why stop now?

Maybe it’s time to stop him. But we have no mechanism for that. That’s a fact too.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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