Poking the Bear

Valentine’s Day is all about love, or guilt, or lust – or something. Men, that gift had better be just right, or you’re in trouble. Women, make him worry – there’s power in this day. Retailers – mark up the flowers and the chocolates – there’s big money to be made. And of course Charlie Brown will sigh for that little re-haired girl who will doesn’t know he even exists, and never will know. Valentine’s Day is dangerous. There was that Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 and last Valentine’s Day it was seventeen shot dead at that high school in Florida. And this Valentine’s Day the president had had enough – he will assume the duties of Congress, because they’re useless. He can rule the country without them. That’s what people want anyway – or so he’s thinking. He was elected to shake things up, to change things. And this is that.

That’s not overstating what was happening:

Congress on Thursday approved a massive budget deal to avert an impending government shutdown, and President Trump promised to sign it, but only after announcing he would also declare a national emergency so he can get more money for a border wall.

Congress won’t appropriate the money, so screw them. He’ll grab the money elsewhere, and that played out this way:

Moments after Trump disclosed his intentions in a phone call with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), McConnell announced the news on the Senate floor, ending days of uncertainty over whether the president would support the $333 billion spending deal, which includes less than a quarter of the money he’s sought for a steel wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Senate swiftly passed the legislation on an 83-to-16 vote, and the House followed suit hours later, approving the bill 300 to 128 — veto-proof margins in both chambers. If Trump keeps his promise to sign the measure, it would avert a government shutdown that would have started Saturday and keep the government open through at least Sept. 30.

Mitch McConnell was the key here. He wanted to keep the government open. He realized the only way to do that, now, was to let Trump have the “power of the purse” as stipulated in the Constitution. He’d give that up to have a functioning government that at least functions – but nothing is that easy:

Lawmakers had been eager to put shutdown politics behind them after a record 35-day funding lapse forced 800,000 federal workers to go without paychecks through Christmas and much of January. But a national emergency declaration, which would allow Trump to circumvent Congress and use the military to build his wall, would create a new set of problems.

Many of Trump’s GOP congressional allies called the move ­ill-advised, and Democrats promised immediate action aimed at blocking it. And the declaration will probably face legal challenges from states, border residents, civil liberties groups and possibly congressional Democrats.

And there were immediate problems:

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said he plans to introduce a resolution of disapproval that would overturn the declaration, calling it “a gross abuse of power that cannot be tolerated.”

Under the National Emergencies Act, House passage of a disapproval resolution would trigger automatic consideration by the Senate, where a simple majority vote would be required to agree to it. Given opposition from some Republicans, that raises the prospect that a disapproval resolution would pass the narrowly divided Senate in an embarrassing rebuke to Trump – a scenario McConnell privately warned the president about recently.

And it gets worse:

That would force Trump to contemplate issuing the first veto of his presidency, which the president’s critics in Congress would probably lack the votes to override. But Nadler said that if their resolution is vetoed, House Democrats would challenge the emergency declaration in court.

But the key guy had just given up:

McConnell has been warning against an emergency declaration publicly and privately for weeks, but on Thursday he told senators he had informed the president he would support the move. According to two officials with knowledge of the exchanges who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, Trump had been leaning against supporting the congressional spending bill but relented after several conversations with McConnell, who then announced his agreement to go along with an emergency declaration.

McConnell saw this as the only way to keep the government open, but that’s no good:

The White House Counsel’s Office has warned Trump against declaring a national emergency, calling it a “high litigation risk,” according to a person with knowledge of the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal private deliberations.

Lawyers encouraged Trump to reprogram money without declaring a national emergency. But the president has been inclined toward the declaration, in part because he sees it as an avenue to more wall money, according to administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

That is, in a national emergency he can grab all the money he wants. It’s an emergency after all, and McConnell was trapped, and looked like an ass-kissing fool:

After getting burned by Trump in December on a spending bill the Senate passed and the president disavowed, McConnell wanted to move as fast as possible to a vote following Trump’s assurance of support. The majority leader was in such a hurry to announce Trump’s backing and call the vote Thursday that he interrupted Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) in the middle of a speech about biofuels, drawing wrathful exclamations and glares from the longtime Iowa lawmaker.

But there’s big money involved:

White House officials have closely held their precise plans on taking executive action, insisting that they had legal ways to secure more than $5.7 billion in funds without congressional approval but refusing to say exactly how they’d do it.

One reason they were circumspect is because they were waiting for final details of the congressional deal to be made public, so they could ascertain the level of resources they would need to redirect from other programs, according to a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal plans. Traditionally, moving money from one program to another requires congressional approval, but declaring a national emergency could give them more flexibility.

Congressional aides said Thursday that they believe there is up to $21 billion in “unobligated” Defense Department funding that the president could target for construction of the wall. That includes $10 billion in military construction money in the fiscal 2019 budget and $11 billion in previous budgets that is not yet spent…

So the Defense Department will have no buffer for repairs to facilities – barracks and runways and shipyards and whatnot – because all the money will go to the big wall. There are rules of course – that money would have to be redirected to “military” spending, but the president can declare anything military that he wants to declare military. He can’t? So sue him! Someone will. And of course there’s that other matter:

A central promise of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign was that he would somehow make Mexico pay for the construction of the border wall, but since becoming president, all of his efforts have focused on using U.S. taxpayer money to finance the projects. Trump has said that a pending revised trade agreement with Mexico and Canada effectively fulfills his promise, but it is unclear whether Congress will approve that trade agreement. And there is no language in the agreement that would create any new funding mechanism to provide money for a wall.

So expect this:

There will be lawsuits. Lots of them. From California to Congress, the litigants will multiply.

They will file suit in numerous jurisdictions – certainly within the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit on the West Coast, in U.S. District Court in Washington and maybe even in New York. That’s been the pattern in the hundreds of lawsuits, many of them successful, brought against the Trump administration, the idea being that some judge somewhere will block the wall…

“Any crisis on our border is of President Trump’s own making,” declared Xavier Becerra, the attorney general of California and a likely litigant. “Family separations, child detention, turning our backs on asylum seekers, and more. There is no national emergency. If Trump oversteps his authority and abandons negotiations with Congress by declaring a fabricated national emergency, we won’t only call his bluff; we will do what we must to hold him accountable. No one is above the law.”

How did it come to this? Robert Costa and his team at the Washington Posts have a tale to tell about that:

After three weeks of pained negotiations to keep the federal government open, President Trump almost blew the whole thing up again on Thursday.

Headed for another defeat on his signature promise to make Mexico pay for a southern border wall, the president was frustrated after a briefing by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and others on details of the final deal to avoid a shutdown, according to officials involved in the discussions. Trump threatened not to sign the legislation, the officials said, putting the government on the brink of another damaging shutdown.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was on the phone with Trump at least three times during the course of the nerve-racking day, pressing him to stay the course and asserting that Democrats had actually lost the spending fight, two people familiar with the conversations said.

“We thought he was good to go all morning, and then suddenly it’s like everything is off the rails,” said one senior Republican aide.

In short, this wasn’t pretty:

For Trump, the negotiations were never really about figuring out how to win. They were about figuring out how to lose – and how to cast his ultimate defeat as victory instead.

“Zero chance you could spin this as a win for Republicans,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), head of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said earlier in the week. He called the bipartisan deal “a total capitulation” and added, “Bluntly, it was a waste of three weeks.”

And there was this:

“I think the president’s view was that he could get us to fold. He could talk about his emergency; he could do all kinds of things,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday in an interview with The Washington Post. “Once he learned he couldn’t bully us into doing what he wanted, once he learned that the public was on our side, he realized he should give up.”

So it was time to humor him, to feed his ego, to lie to him:

Inside the West Wing, Trump’s advisers argued to him that his call for a border wall was more popular because of his showdown with Congress and that his approval ratings had improved slightly. Indeed, he said at Monday night’s rally that the shutdown was “a very important thing we did” because it raised public awareness of “what the hell is happening with the border.”

That might have helped. Tell him he’s winning. Tell him that everyone, absolutely everyone, loves him. That might work. That might calm him down, but that might be impossible:

Privately, Trump complained vociferously about the final deal and said he felt Republican negotiators had failed him and that he might not sign it, according to one person who spoke to the president. “Everyone thinks this is terrible,” Trump told this person on Tuesday, echoing the criticism from some of his supporters in conservative media, including Fox News host Sean Hannity.

But Trump did not have the stomach for another shutdown and told aides it had generated nonstop negative coverage. Polls showed most Americans blamed him for the shutdown in December and January, the longest in the nation’s history. And his advisers counseled him against a second shutdown, arguing that he had options to fund barrier projects without Congress. Even acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, once an advocate of budget brinkmanship, argued against a shutdown this time.

On Capitol Hill, there was no appetite, either, particularly among Republicans who were rattled by the GOP’s poor showing in suburban and swing areas last year. “Just not an option, at all,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) said. “We’d state the obvious: The first shutdown was a mistake and we can’t do it again.”

Trump had to sign the bill:

Tensions and worries lingered until the end, as Trump wavered and some Republican leaders were exasperated.

McConnell immediately went to the floor to announce Trump’s acquiescence to the deal because he was afraid the president would reverse course again and wanted to announce the deal while he had it, according to people familiar with the matter.

McConnell wanted to turn the tables and trap Trump, and there were those “other” people:

Democrats, privately, were amused but made a conscious decision not to gloat – concerned that if they celebrated what they considered a victory Thursday they might anger Trump enough to veto the deal.

One conferee summarized the instructions from Democratic leaders: “Don’t poke the bear.”

That’s always good advice. And don’t poke the bear on Valentine’s Day. He’s grumpy. And he is a bear, and he is dangerous. He’s changing everything. He has found a way to bypass Congress – to just decide this one thing, about building this giant wall, all on his own. The current Republicans in Congress won’t stop him. His base would toss them out of office. The courts may stop him, but he has packed those with judges who will stand by him, and a Supreme Court that’s almost entirely his now.

This is getting dire. Someone needs to poke this bear, hard. There’s no need to be nice. Valentine’s Day is over.

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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