Hard Diplomacy

Things have gone over the edge. It was Saint Patrick’s Day, with all the parades and green beer and whatnot. Everyone is Irish on this one day? No. we’re all Americans. Why won’t these people assimilate? Hispanic-Americans know better. In early May they wouldn’t dare say that everyone is Mexican for a day, and Muslim-Americans know it’s best to just hide these days – and waving a flag now and then helps. Italian-Americans are still trying to figure out whether or not they’re supposed to be proud of Tony Soprano and those Godfather movies. Those of us who are Czech-Americans just smile. We provide the nation with irony, and just blend in. No one knows who we are – and out here in Hollywood there are voice-coaches who teach “unusual” people how to speak with that flat Midwestern accent, so they sound like Real Americans, or like network newscasters. But the Irish get a pass, at least for one day. Go figure.

But the nation needs more irony, because things have gone over the edge. That just happened in Washington. The White House actually cited a parody published in the Washington Post as an example of all the enthusiastic support out there for President Trump’s proposed budget – the “skinny” budget, which is no more than a list of general ideas – cut everything, everywhere. That’ll free up funds to build that giant wall, which Mexico will never pay for, and fund sixty or seventy billion more for the Pentagon – because our military is now smaller than Finland’s or something. And none of it will happen – no one wants to shut down the country, not even the Republicans who say they hate big government. They don’t. They’re selective about that – but it doesn’t matter. This was not a budget. This was a statement of values. America has gone soft. It’s time for hard power, internationally, and sink-or-swim hard times domestically. Let the losers sink.

The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri had a bit of fun with that in Trump’s budget makes perfect sense and will fix America, and I will tell you why:

This budget will make America a lean, mean fighting machine with bulging, rippling muscles and not an ounce of fat. America has been weak and soft for too long. BUT HOW WILL I SURVIVE ON THIS BUDGET you may be wondering. I AM A HUMAN CHILD, NOT A COSTLY FIGHTER JET. You may not survive, but that is because you are SOFT and WEAK, something this budget is designed to eliminate.

The White House linked to this item at the bottom of its 1600 Daily newsletter – here’s an archived copy before they deleted the link. They liked the title. They should have read it:

What are we cutting?

The State Department, by 29 percent: Right now, all the State Department’s many qualified employees do is sit around being sad that they are never consulted about anything. This is, frankly, depressing, and it is best to put them out of their misery. Besides, they are only trained in Soft Diplomacy, like a woman would do, and NOBODY wants that. Only HARD POWER now that we have a man in charge who thought the name Rex Tillerson was not manly enough and rechristened himself Wayne Tracker. With the money we will save on these sad public servants, we will be able to buy lots of GUNS and F-35s and other cool things that go BOOM and POW and PEW PEW PEW.

Environmental Protection Agency: We absolutely do not need this. Clean rivers and breathable air are making us SOFT and letting the Chinese and the Russians get the jump on us. We must go back to the America that was great, when the air was full of coal and danger and the way you could tell if the air was breathable was by carrying a canary around with you at all times, perched on your leathery, coal-dust-covered finger. Furthermore, we will cut funding to Superfund cleanup in the EPA because the only thing manlier than clean water is DIRTY water…

Commerce Department: This will lose its funding to prepare people for coastal disasters, because in the future we will all be so strong that we can stare down the sea and make it recede by flexing our bulging muscles…

We are decreasing funding to the National Institutes of Health because in the future we will cure disease by punching it, or, if that fails, sending drones after it. Also, we will buy more planes and guns to shoot airborne viruses out of the sky.

That’s just a bit of it. Yes, no one at the White House actually read the thing, unless one or two of them did, and kind of liked it. Donald Trump never backs down. That’s what makes him great. America should never back down. That’s what will make America great again. We can stare down the sea and make it recede by flexing our bulging muscles. That’s a cool metaphor.

That’s also nuts. Sometimes, given more information, or new information, you change your mind. Sometimes you make mistakes – you were dead wrong – and you say oops, sorry about that, and move on. The whole thing will be forgotten the next day. Donald Trump, however, never backs down. He never admits mistakes, and of course no one moves on:

President Trump provoked a rare public dispute with America’s closest ally on Friday after his White House aired an explosive and unsubstantiated claim that Britain’s spy agency had secretly eavesdropped on him at the behest of President Barack Obama during last year’s campaign.

Livid British officials adamantly denied the allegation and secured promises from senior White House officials never to repeat it. But a defiant Mr. Trump refused to back down, making clear that the White House had nothing to retract or apologize for because his spokesman had simply repeated an assertion made by a Fox News commentator. Fox itself later disavowed the report.

So, Trump took a domestic mess and made it into an international mess, but that’s what he does:

The rupture with London was Mr. Trump’s latest quarrel with an ally or foreign power since taking office. Mexico’s president angrily canceled a White House visit in January over Mr. Trump’s proposed border wall. A telephone call with Australia’s prime minister ended abruptly amid a dispute over refugees. Sweden bristled over Mr. Trump’s criticism of its refugee policy. And China refused for weeks to engage with Mr. Trump because of his postelection call with Taiwan’s president.

But this was special:

The president was hosting for the first time Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who is seen by many Europeans as the most important champion of the liberal international order.

Though polite, the two leaders seemed stiff and distant during their public appearances. European news outlets and social media made much of the fact that she suggested a handshake for photographers in the Oval Office and he did not respond, although it appeared that he did not hear her. Either way, the two were clearly on separate pages on issues like immigration and trade.

It appeared that he did not hear her? That’s generous. He looked the other way. He didn’t even look at her. He doesn’t like her, or perhaps, with a handshake, people would see that she has bigger hands than his. He’s sensitive about his tiny hands. Or perhaps the problem is that she’s a woman. Women are soft. He’s hard – a tough guy. A handshake, captured forever on camera, would imply that “soft” and hard are both fine in this troubled world. Trump isn’t going to admit that.

It doesn’t matter, because the problem was the Brits:

The angry response from Britain stemmed from Mr. Trump’s persistence in accusing Mr. Obama of tapping his phones last year despite the lack of evidence and across-the-board denials. At a briefing on Thursday, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, read from a sheaf of news clippings that he suggested bolstered the president’s claim.

Among them was an assertion by Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News commentator, that Mr. Obama had used Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, the agency known as the GCHQ, to spy on Mr. Trump. In response to Mr. Spicer, the agency quickly denied it as “nonsense” and “utterly ridiculous,” while British officials contacted American counterparts to complain.

Trump wouldn’t let that stand:

“We said nothing,” Mr. Trump told a German reporter who asked about the matter at a news conference with Ms. Merkel. “All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make an opinion on it.” He added: “You shouldn’t be talking to me. You should be talking to Fox.”

He admits nothing, and then he dug himself in deeper:

The president tried making a joke about it, turning to Ms. Merkel, who was angered during Mr. Obama’s administration by reports that the National Security Agency had tapped her cellphone and those of other leaders. “At least we have something in common, perhaps,” Mr. Trump said. She made a face that suggested she had no interest in getting involved.

She probably couldn’t believe this was happening, but still, the issue was the Brits:

Mr. Trump’s unremorseful tenor further stunned British officials, who thought they had managed to contain the matter. Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to the United States, had raised the matter on Thursday night with Mr. Spicer at a St. Patrick’s Day reception in Washington. Mark Lyall Grant, the national security adviser to Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, had contacted his American counterpart, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster.

On Friday morning, a spokesman for Mrs. May said the White House had backed off the allegation. “We’ve made clear to the administration that these claims are ridiculous and should be ignored,” the spokesman said, on the condition of anonymity in keeping with British protocol. “We’ve received assurances these allegations won’t be repeated.”

But White House officials, who also requested anonymity, said Mr. Spicer had offered no regret to the ambassador. “He didn’t apologize, no way, no how,” a senior West Wing official said. The officials said they did not know whether General McMaster had apologized.

This was getting absurd:

Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma said on Friday that Mr. Trump had not proved his case and should apologize to Mr. Obama. “Frankly, unless you can produce some pretty compelling truth, I think President Obama is owed an apology,” Mr. Cole told reporters. “If he didn’t do it, we shouldn’t be reckless in accusations that he did.”

Cole wasn’t alone:

Foreign policy analysts expressed astonishment that Mr. Trump would so cavalierly endanger that partnership. “It illustrates the extent to which the White House really doesn’t care what damage they do to crucial relationships in order to avoid admitting their dishonesty,” said Kori Schake, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush now at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “America’s allies are having to protect themselves against being tarred with the White House’s mendacity.”

Eric S. Edelman, an undersecretary of defense under Mr. Bush, has written about the stresses between the United States and Britain in recent years. “I hope that this latest episode doesn’t drive a stake through the heart of the strongest remaining element of Anglo-American partnership,” he said.

Julianne Smith, who was a deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., said Mr. Trump did not appear to realize how much American intelligence agencies depend on Britain in dealing with threats around the world. “He will probably live to see the day when he will regret firing off such an egregious insult to Britain and then failing to apologize for it,” she said.

Trump, like Edith Piaf, doesn’t do regrets, but Josh Barro sees the danger here:

If President Donald Trump gets us all killed, it’s going to be through a chain of events like what we have seen over the past day…

The British are furious, as of course they should be. What Trump’s staff accused them of would be a violation of an informal agreement that the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing countries avoid spying on one another’s citizens.

We are literally having an international incident because our president was mad on the internet.

Obviously, a stupid and gratuitous diplomatic spat with the British is not going to lead to an exchange of nuclear saber rattling. But Trump’s delusional thinking, unwillingness to admit fault, and fragile male ego are not limited to his relations with our close allies.

That’s the problem:

What I most fear about Trump’s presidency is that he will blunder into a nuclear war. If he does, it will look something like this, but with a less-forgiving country than Britain. Perhaps, for example, it could be North Korea, a country doing its best to stir the pot.

It’s not that I think Trump will get offended and immediately order a nuclear strike on a country that offends him. I believe that he could be talked out of that. I even believe that the military chain of command would refuse such a ridiculous order.

Rather, it is that Trump will create a chain of unnecessary provocations, escalating situations that should be de-escalated, until we end up in a nuclear exchange – perhaps even one in which we are making the second strike.

One thing does lead to another:

If you think about international incidents on a scale from “easy to de-escalate” to “hard to de-escalate,” “stupid accusation against GCHQ” is way out on the “easy” end. And yet, this White House cannot even fix that one correctly.

As you watch the White House fail to fix this easy-to-fix screw-up, do you have any confidence in it to manage a confrontation with North Korea with a clear eye toward avoiding millions of deaths on the Korean Peninsula? What will happen if Trump feels de-escalating the situation in Korea will involve a loss of face for him?

Trump talks about nuclear war as though it is a grim inevitability. It’s not – nuclear war is avoided through careful and responsible diplomatic maneuvering by nuclear powers, both friendly and hostile. But “responsible diplomatic maneuvering” is not Trump’s strong suit.

As I watch Trump blunder with Britain, I am terrified that his handling of the Korean crisis might lead to the deaths of many, many, many, many people.

Of course, it probably won’t. But the probability that it will is far too high. Of the unacceptable tail risks of the Trump presidency, this is by far the scariest and most unacceptable. And it’s a bigger deal than healthcare, the “skinny budget,” or any other news this week.

Josh Barro is right to worry, because we will no longer be “soft” over there either:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned for the first time Friday that “all options” are being considered to counter North Korea’s emerging nuclear threat, including a military strike if necessary to safeguard allies and tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in the region.

The threat of a U.S. military attack comes after a series of ballistic missile tests by Kim Jong Un’s government in recent weeks has heightened tensions across northeast Asia and raised the possibility of a conflict with an adversary that now possesses nuclear arms and appears close to being able to strike U.S. territory.

The tough talk appears to be a break from previous U.S. administrations, which emphasized diplomacy, economic sanctions and covert operations, including cyberattacks, to try to reduce the danger from one of the world’s most isolated, and unpredictable, dictatorships.

That’s over now:

“Let me be very clear: The policy of strategic patience has ended,” he said, referring to the Obama administration’s policy of trying to wait out the North Korean regime while pressing it with economic sanctions and covert actions…

Tillerson emphasized the need for maintaining economic sanctions on Pyongyang but also made clear that the Trump administration would not be limited to that approach.

So we get this:

Among the options would be to boost South Korea’s anti-missile defenses, a process that is underway, or to enable Japan to build an offensive missile capability. Japan’s 1947 Constitution, imposed by the United States, limits its military to defense only.

Washington also could reintroduce nuclear weapons to U.S. bases in South Korea to serve as a front-line deterrent. They were removed in 1991 under President George H. W. Bush as part of a post-Cold War effort to ease global nuclear tensions.

There was a good reason for that:

Previous administrations have considered a first strike against North Korean missile and nuclear facilities an option of last resort because it almost certainly would provoke a massive retaliation against South Korea and Japan. More than 75,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed in those countries.

The mounting threat could pose the first major foreign policy crisis for the Trump White House. As a candidate, Trump suggested letting Japan and South Korea build their own nuclear weapons to counter North Korea, but he has not pursued that as president.

Even the threat of a preemptive American attack adds risks to a volatile situation since North Korea has always insisted that was the U.S. intention. Its leaders have used that claim to justify creating one of the world’s most heavily armed states.

But there will no talking about that:

Tillerson also appeared to reject the idea of trying to negotiate a freeze in North Korea’s weapons program, a policy that the Clinton administration tried in 1994 by supplying oil and other aid to Pyongyang in an effort to block its then-nascent nuclear development.

The so-called Agreed Framework successfully slowed Pyongyang’s ability to produce weapons-grade plutonium that could be used to fuel a bomb. But the deal collapsed in 2002 when Pyongyang shifted course and pursued a uranium-enrichment route to nuclear arms.

We won’t back down this time, but neither will the other side:

On Thursday, the North Korean Embassy in Beijing invited reporters in for a rare news conference to blame the United States for putting the region at what it called “the brink of nuclear war.”

The bellicose language was not new but issuing the threat in Beijing, which the Trump administration hopes will help constrain Pyongyang, was notable. China has announced a ban on coal imports from North Korea, but analysts doubt Beijing will enforce the ban for fear of creating instability on its border.

For his part, President Trump declared on Twitter that North Korea was “behaving very badly” and dismissed a Chinese proposal to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in exchange for a halt to U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

Nope, we’re not going to back down. America won’t do that again, and Joshua Keating sees this:

So how scary are things? While it’s not clear that Tillerson’s threats of military action are any more serious than the tough talk of previous administrations, the prospect of an attack on North Korea is deeply alarming, in large part because, as Jeffery Lewis recently wrote, there’s every indication that North Korea intends to use its nuclear weapons early, to repel such an invasion. Kim does not want to share the fate of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi, and if he believes an attack is imminent, the likelihood that he will attack first goes up. So if the U.S. backs up Trump and Tillerson’s boilerplate bluster with a military posture that’s actually more aggressive, that might encourage rather than deter a disaster.

Kim is as “hard” as Trump, and add this:

North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are also improving at an alarming clip. The country appears to be taking the final steps to arm its missiles with nuclear weapons, and earlier this month fired four missiles in what it said was a drill to practice an attack on U.S. military bases in Japan. It’s still years away from developing intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States, but it appears to be making progress toward that goal. President Trump has vowed that this “won’t happen.” But so far, it’s not clear how he plans to prevent it.

But we can stare down the sea and make it recede by flexing our bulging muscles, can’t we? Things have gone over the edge. There’s a reason people drink so much on Saint Patrick’s Day, and it has nothing to do with the Irish.

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The Skinny

It was just another day in Trumpland so of course there was the Nazi:

The Forward reported Thursday that a far-right Hungarian group descended from a knightly order founded by a Nazi-allied, World War II-era leader claims White House aide Sebastian Gorka as one of its sworn members.

Two members of Vitézi Rend, or the Order of Vitéz, told the Forward that Gorka took a lifelong loyalty oath to become a full member of the organization.

“Of course he was sworn in,” Kornel Pintér, one of the group’s leaders in West Hungary, told the Forward of Gorka. “I met with him in [the city of] Sopron. His father introduced him.”

So, who are these guys? That would be these guys:

The Order of Vitéz was established by Miklós Horthy, the Hungarian admiral and statesman who oversaw the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Jews to Auschwitz during World War II. Though the original iteration of the Order of Vitéz was banned in 1947, two organizations claim to carry on its legacy today. Gorka is a member of the so-called “Historical Vitézi Rend,” according to the Forward.

Is he? Maybe, or maybe not:

The former Breitbart News-editor-turned-top-counterterrorism-adviser has acknowledged wearing a medal associated with the Order of Vitéz to one of President Donald Trump’s inaugural balls. But he has not acknowledged any personal association with the group, saying the medal was awarded to his father in 1979 in recognition of his anti-communist efforts. Gorka’s father was a spy for the British in Soviet-era Hungary.

Yeah, but the Soviets didn’t like Jews either – but never mind. Those guys say Trump’s top counterterrorism adviser swore a lifelong loyalty oath to them. Gorka says he did no such thing. Who are you going to believe? And the Forward is a Jewish newspaper, isn’t it? No, Gorka didn’t bring that up. He knows better, and the White House is silent about this.

This was just a curiosity, as was this:

Stephen Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, recently spoke approvingly of the ideas of an anti-Semitic French intellectual who was sentenced to life in prison for cooperating with the Nazis during World War II.

That would be the French philosopher Charles Maurras:

Bannon approvingly cited Maurras’ distinction between what the French philosopher called the “real country” of the people and the “legal country” led by government officials. Maurras put Jews in the latter category and referred to all Jews as foreigners.

There’s much more at the link – it wasn’t all Sartre and Camus back in the day – but forget all that. There are the Russians:

Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign as national security adviser amid controversy over his contacts with Russia’s ambassador, collected nearly $68,000 in fees and expenses from Russia-related entities in 2015, a higher amount than was previously known, according to newly released documents.

The records show that the bulk of the money, more than $45,000, came from the Russian government-backed television network RT, in connection to a December 2015 trip Flynn took to Moscow. Flynn has acknowledged that RT sponsored his trip, during which he attended a gala celebrating the network’s 10th anniversary and was seated near Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Oops. But there’s more:

The newly released documents show that Flynn was also paid $11,250 that year by the U.S. subsidiary of a Russian cybersecurity firm, Kaspersky Lab, and another $11,250 by a U.S. air cargo company affiliated with the Volga-Dnepr Group, which is owned by a Russian businessman. The cyberfirm and the airline said the payments were made for speeches Flynn delivered in Washington.

The new disclosures come as Flynn’s interactions with Russia have been under scrutiny. Flynn resigned 24 days after taking office amid reports that he misled Vice President Pence about the nature of his contacts in December with the Russian ambassador.

This looks bad. What was Trump thinking when he hooked up with Flynn, and there’s that other matter:

This month, Flynn filed paperwork indicating that he had been a foreign agent during the months when he was a top adviser to Trump’s campaign. Flynn’s company was hired by a Dutch company owned by a Turkish businessman to do work related to Turkish government interests.

So he was paid by the Russians, and then he was simultaneously paid by the Turkish government and by Donald Trump. Trump wasn’t paying attention. If he were, he would have known about that television network:

The U.S. government has said RT, which receives Kremlin funding, is part of a network of propaganda outlets that help popularize a pro-Russian perspective on the news and has issued warning about the network dating to before Flynn entered the private sector. In January, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that RT propaganda played a role in Russia’s effort to influence the U.S. presidential election and help Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

In an August interview with the Washington Post, Flynn dismissed concerns about the news network’s Kremlin ties, comparing the network to independent U.S. outlets. “What’s CNN? What’s MSNBC? Come on!” he said.

That’s not the view of the intelligence community. Trump might have asked, but Flynn had been fired by our intelligence community for being both an asshole and bit of a maniac. Trump must have liked his swagger, and Trump does seem to worry that the CIA is out to get him. That must have sealed the deal, but there’s this:

Kaspersky Lab makes some of the world’s most popular anti-virus software. The U.S. intelligence community has long suspected that Kaspersky is used by Moscow to assist Russian espionage efforts – a charge Kaspersky has denied. In a twist, though, in December, a top Kaspersky Lab official was arrested by Russian authorities and accused of spying for U.S. companies and intelligence services.

That’s a bit mysterious. That’s also a bit of trouble for Trump, but not the only trouble:

President Donald Trump suffered the second bipartisan rebuke from Congress over his wiretapping claims in two days – and left it to his embattled spokesman, Sean Spicer, to explain that the president didn’t actually mean what he wrote.

The Republican chairman and top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday shot down Trump’s claim that former President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

Their statement comes a day after the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee also cast doubt on Trump’s claim.

The stunning rebukes from senior Republicans are the latest sign that many in the GOP are increasingly frustrated with a president who has made a habit of hurling inflammatory insults on Twitter at his political rivals – or even his reality-television rivals – often without evidence and sometimes based on conspiracy theories.

A defiant Spicer on Thursday responded by accusing reporters of ignoring key information and the intelligence committee leaders of speaking before they have all the facts.

Trump sent him out there to be defiant, and the rest of this item covers the details of Spicer shouting at the press for a full ten minutes – Trump has evidence which he will reveal at the time and place of his choosing – stuff from Breitbart and InfoWars, based on what was implied in a New York Times article. The FBI and CIA and the rest of the Republicans are wrong. You’ll see. You’ll all see.

Sean Spicer has a tough job, and a demanding boss, but Nancy LeTourneau sums up what went wrong here:

Trump’s pattern is to pretend that evidence to support his lies is forthcoming and assume that our collective attention span is as short as his when it fails to materialize.

That’s not working, and Kevin Drum explains why:

This is a lesson Trump learned during his decades as a B-list celebrity. If you say something outrageous, it will get you attention from the Page Six crowd but it won’t last long. It doesn’t especially matter if it’s true or not true. It’s entertainment, and as long as it drives traffic it’s all good. In a few days it will get eclipsed by something else and everyone will lose interest.

Without giving it much thought, Trump probably figured the same was true of politics. And it is – but only up to a point. Even as a presidential candidate Trump could count on outrages dying out fairly quickly. But not as president. That’s the point where it’s not entertainment anymore.

That might be a fatal misunderstanding, but Drum wonders if Trump is trying to fail, considering events so far:

A health care bill so gratuitously brutal it seems almost intended to fail…

A budget that’s very plainly just a piece of performance art designed to outrage liberals…

A new immigration order so similar to the first one that Trump must have known it would be blocked in court…

A funding request for a border wall that’s basically a demand for a blank check that Congress will never pass…

A string of conspiracy theories (illegal voting, Trump Tower wiretaps, Obama is masterminding leaks) seemingly designed to waste congressional time – and, of course, an endless series of hollow executive orders, bombastic tweets, and sob stories about the media mistreating poor Donald…

This is puzzling:

Incompetence is the obvious explanation for all this, but you gotta wonder. Is Trump trying to fail so he can blame everyone else when things go to hell while he remains a populist hero? Just by accident you’d think he’d do a few things that might actually work.

That doesn’t seem to be the case, and of the budget, Drum adds this:

Don’t pay any more attention to President Trump’s budget than you do to his tweets. It’s not meant as a serious proposal. It’s just a way for him to send a message to his fans that he hates the EPA and the State Department and loves vets and the Pentagon.

The real action is in Congress. They won’t pay any attention to Trump’s budget, and he knows it.

Drum is right about that:

Some of President Trump’s best friends in Congress sharply criticized his first budget Thursday, with defense hawks saying the proposed hike in Pentagon spending wasn’t big enough, while rural conservatives and others attacked plans to cut a wide range of federal agencies and programs.

The bad mood among Republican critics was tempered by a consensus that the president’s budget wasn’t going very far on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers reminded everybody that they ultimately control the nation’s purse strings.

“While we have a responsibility to reduce our federal deficit, I am disappointed that many of the reductions and eliminations proposed in the president’s skinny budget are draconian, careless and counterproductive,” Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) the former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement. “We will certainly review this budget proposal, but Congress ultimately has the power of the purse.”

Trump’s own party just said that he doesn’t matter, and there are specific worries:

Republicans worried that some of Trump’s cuts would undermine critical environmental programs in their states. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said he plans to oppose major cuts to the $300 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

“I’m committed to continuing to do everything I can to protect and preserve Lake Erie, including preserving this critical program and its funding,” Portman said in a statement.

The same could be said for Republicans from rural and agriculture-heavy states that stand to lose big under Trump’s proposed cuts. House Agriculture Committee Chairman K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.) raised concerns that farmers could be hit hard at a time when farm income is already down 50 percent compared with four years ago.

Agriculture cuts are a particularly sensitive issue because periodically lawmakers spend months, if not years, hammering out the details of a comprehensive farm bill.

“Agriculture has done more than its fair share,” Conaway said in a statement. “The bottom line is this is the start of a longer, larger process. It is a proposal, not THE budget.”

And on the other side:

One of the greatest pockets of opposition to the Trump blueprint can be found among defense hawks. Defense and national security programs would see the biggest boost in funding under the president’s budget.

But these military-minded members are not satisfied, accusing the president of everything from accounting gimmicks to playing fast and loose with the lives of soldiers in war zones to follow through on his campaign promises.

Trump can’t win, and Jordan Weissmann covers the nonsense:

White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney faced a barrage of questions from reporters Thursday about the Trump administration’s desire to slash spending on domestic programs, including a number that help the poor, in order to finance a military buildup, which it outlined in its preliminary “skinny” budget. In the course of the cross-examination, Mulvaney managed to offer up one of the most deeply cynical justifications for yanking benefits from the needy that I have ever seen.

Early on in the Q-and-A, Mulvaney explained that the administration didn’t want to fund programs such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or the National Endowment for the Arts because it wasn’t fair to ask coal-mining families in West Virginia to pay for them with their tax dollars.

That was particularly absurd:

Reporter: You were talking about the steel worker in Ohio and the coal miner in Pennsylvania and so on. But those workers may have an elderly mother who depends on the Meals on Wheels program, who may have kids in Head Start. And yesterday or the day before you described this as a hard power budget but is it also a hard-headed budget?

Mulvaney: I don’t think so. I think it’s probably one of the most compassionate things we can do to –

Reporter: Cutting programs that help the elderly?

Mulvaney: You’re only focusing on half of the equation, right? You’re focusing on recipients of the money. We’re focusing on recipients of the money and people who give us the money in the first place. I think it’s fairly compassionate to go to them and say, look, we’re not going to ask you for your hard-earned money anymore. Single mom of two in Detroit, okay, “Give us your money!” We’re not going to do that anymore unless we can – please let me finish. Unless we can guarantee that money will be used in a proper function. That is about as compassionate as you can get.

Weissmann isn’t buying that:

Got that? Mulvaney says the White House is cutting Head Start to make sure it doesn’t waste the taxes of single mothers in Detroit, because it’s just that compassionate. Honestly, I would have more respect for the man if he’d stood up on stage with a stock pot and said the administration had decided that the poor should be boiled into bone broth. At least then he’d have the courage of his convictions.

Weissmann, however, isn’t that surprised:

Much to the frustration of conservatives like Mulvaney, we have progressive taxation in this country, which means that low-income single mothers in cities like Detroit tend not to pay much in income taxes. If anything, they owe federal payroll taxes, which fund things like Social Security and Medicare, programs that aren’t even dealt with in the partial budget the White House just released. The Trump administration is not saving struggling parents a dime by cutting the Head Start or Community Development Block Grant funding that helps their kids get into pre-K or that feeds their parents. You can argue at length about whether some of these programs work as intended – I certainly don’t have much faith that this White House will pay attention to the best social science out there – but nobody can say with a straight face that the administration is simply looking after the interests of needy mothers. Mulvaney’s rhetorical crocodile tears are plain vile.

Weissmann then gets specific about the problem with this budget:

In order to fund a $54 billion increase in defense spending, it takes a machete to all manner of federal programs – aid for the poor and elderly, cancer research, public television, job training, and so forth. It gouges away 31 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget and 29 percent of the State Department’s funding. This would all be horrifying, if it weren’t already being written off by Republicans who will have the power to entirely ignore it.

That’s the saving grace here:

Congress votes on appropriations. Presidential budgets, on the other hand, are mostly exercises in political messaging meant to outline the White House’s priorities, which in the case of the current administration mostly entails bug-eyed nationalist posturing. The budget is literally titled “America First.” Wimpy liberal priorities like environmental protection and the arts get the ax. (It not only eliminates funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – Big Bird is in the crosshairs yet again – but also the endowments for the arts and humanities.) Money for international aid and diplomacy take a deadly cut in favor of more ships for the Navy and more soldiers in the Army and Marines.

“Make no mistake about it, this is a hard-power budget, not a soft-power budget,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, the man largely responsible for the document, said. “That is what the president wanted and that’s what we gave him.”

And that’s not what anyone else wanted:

When reporters asked South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham about reductions to State Department funding, he responded. “It’s dead on arrival. It’s not going to happen. It would be a disaster. If you take soft power off the table you’re never going to win the war.”

Graham continued, “What’s most disturbing about the cut in the State Department’s budget, it shows a lack of understanding of what it takes to win the war.”

Contemplate that. The Trump administration somehow managed to write a budget that amps up military spending and simultaneously pissed off Lindsey Graham. This is the guy who loves war so much he wanted to put American boots on the ground in Syria. It’s like handing Cheech Marin a bag of weed and having him throw it back at you in disgust.

There was no planning here:

According to the New York Times, GOP staffers on Capitol Hill are pissed off the chronically disorganized White House dropped the budget while giving them zero “guidance on its details or how to sell the plan.” Meanwhile, half its contents are obvious attack-ad fodder.

That’s not going to fly:

Trump supposedly wants to reduce the budget for the National Institutes of Health, the major funder of biomedical science in the United States, and general symbol of bipartisan pride, by 18 percent. Does anybody in Congress really want to be the guy who decimated cancer research? And what senator wants to explain to the pharma lobby why they took a hatchet to the basic science that fuels their drug pipeline? Trump also supposedly wants to abolish the Community Development Block Grant, which funds meals on wheels for seniors among other cherished initiatives, and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance program, which helps a whole lot of old people pay for heat in the winter. There you go – a budget literally designed to leave elderly Americans eating cat food in the cold. Enjoy that one come campaign season. Meanwhile, even the current head of the EPA, former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who was selected for his job precisely because he hates the EPA and thinks climate change isn’t really a matter of grave concern, reportedly asked for a smaller budget reduction than what he got here. The man Trump brought in to dismantle this agency thinks the president is overdoing it.

I say Trump supposedly wants these things, because I personally doubt he’s actually read his own budget.

But maybe that doesn’t matter:

It should be said that this is not even a full budget. Rather, it’s a “skinny” version that presidents issue early in their first year that doesn’t include line-by-line spending details or deal with issues like entitlements. In that respect, it’s even more of a glorified press release than your typical presidential appropriations request. And in this case all it tells us is that Trump wants to spend bigger on guns, boats, and bombs, and doesn’t care much about whether the planet fries. And yet, while espousing those perfectly conventional conservative values, it’s still managed to alienate other Republicans who will be essential to implementing the administration’s vision. Insofar as they refuse to go along with his plan, it will be another example of Trump’s inability to lead his own party.

Yeah, it was just another day in Trumpland – Nazis and Russians and whatnot everywhere – Trump claiming everyone is out to get him, led by Obama – an absurd budget that was assembled for him, from clips from his campaign speeches, a budget that he might not have even read – and Republicans, now in charge of the government, in disarray.

The budget had a title. America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.. Fareed Zakaria wonders about that:

The Trump administration’s vision for disengagement from the world is a godsend for China. Look at Trump’s proposed budget, which would cut spending on “soft power” – diplomacy, foreign aid, international organizations – by 28 percent. Beijing, by contrast, has tripled the budget of its foreign ministry in the past decade. And that doesn’t include its massive spending on aid and development across Asia and Africa. Just tallying some of Beijing’s key development commitments, George Washington University’s David Shambaugh estimates the total at $1.4 trillion, compared with the Marshall Plan, which in today’s dollars would cost about $100 billion.

That’s a worry:

China’s growing diplomatic strength matters. An Asian head of government recently told me that at every regional conference, “Washington sends a couple of diplomats, whereas Beijing sends dozens. The Chinese are there at every committee meeting, and you are not.” The result, he said, is that Beijing is increasingly setting the Asian agenda.

The Trump administration wants to skimp on U.S. funding for the United Nations. This is music to Chinese ears. Beijing has been trying to gain influence in the global body for years. It has increased its funding for the U.N. across the board and would likely be delighted to pick up the slack as the United States withdraws. As Foreign Policy magazine’s Colum Lynch observes, China has already become the second-largest funder of U.N. peacekeeping and has more peacekeepers than the other four permanent Security Council members combined. Of course, in return for this, China will gain increased influence, from key appointments to shifts in policy throughout the U.N. system.

This is Make America Not Matter:

The United States’ global role has always meant being at the cutting edge in science, education and culture. Here again, Washington is scaling back while Beijing is ramping up. In Trump’s proposed budget, the National Institutes of Health, NASA and the national laboratories face crippling cuts, as do many exchange programs that have brought generations of young leaders to be trained in the United States and exposed to American values. Beijing, meanwhile, has continued to expand “Confucius Institutes” around the world and now offers 20,000 scholarships for foreign students to go to China. Its funding for big science rises every year. The world’s largest telescope is in China, not the United States.

This is also a Reverse-Reagan:

The Trump administration does want a bigger military. But that has never been how China has sought to compete with U.S. power. Chinese leaders have pointed out to me that this was the Soviet strategy during the Cold War, one that failed miserably. The implication was: Let Washington waste resources on the Pentagon, while Beijing would focus on economics, technology and soft power.

And here everyone thought that Trump was working for the Russians. Nope. Maybe he is, in an odd sort of tangential way. Maybe he isn’t. But when the dust settles, if it ever does, China wins it all. That’s the skinny here.

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Getting His Way

No one wins all the time. No one always gets their way. That hurts, but Ralph Waldo Emerson offered this advice – “Win as if you were used to it, lose as if you enjoyed it for a change.”

That’s simple – don’t be an asshole – but that’s hard. Paul Brown, the famous NFL coach, once offered easier advice – “When you win, say nothing. When you lose, say less.”

That’s good advice too. Say nothing. Fix the problem. Win the next time, or the time after that – and even then say nothing. There’s no point in talking about any of it, either way. Fix the problem. That will speak for itself – everyone will get it.

That sounds a bit like No-Drama Obama, but he has said he now regrets not bragging about his successes. That meant that those successes disappeared in all the political chatter. That cost votes – other Democrats had nothing to work with – but he didn’t have it in him. He solved problems. That Osama fellow was suddenly gone, but there were no Mission Accomplished banners on aircraft carriers. Perhaps Obama had read a bit too much Chekhov – “One must be a god to be able to tell successes from failures without making a mistake.”

George Bush understands that now. Barack Obama may understand that too – the success of his Affordable Care Act may be a failure in the end. It was always a mess – subsidizing the purchase of healthcare policies from private for-profit entities out to make big bucks. It was neither capitalism nor socialism and it may be gone soon. If the Republicans have their way, we’ll have market-based healthcare. The government will back away. Buy what you can. The Invisible Hand of Competition will generate the greatest good at the lowest cost, at least in theory. In practice, twenty-four million people will lose what health insurance they have now, because Obama’s hybrid system never did make that much sense. It’s damned hard to be able to tell successes from failures without making a mistake.

Donald Trump doesn’t read Chekhov, or much of anything else. He has said he doesn’t need to – he has common sense or a good brain or whatever – and that means he has considered none of this. When he wins, he brags and sneers. When he loses, he whines and lashes out. Obama didn’t get it. That’s where the votes are, and here we go again, with another loss:

A federal judge in Hawaii issued a nationwide order Wednesday evening blocking President Trump’s ban on travel from parts of the Muslim world, dealing a stinging blow to the White House and signaling that Mr. Trump will have to account in court for his heated rhetoric about Islam.

The ruling was the second major setback for Mr. Trump in his pursuit of a policy he has trumpeted as critical for national security. His first attempt to sharply limit travel from a handful of predominantly Muslim countries ended in a courtroom fiasco last month, when a federal court in Seattle halted it.

Mr. Trump had issued a new and narrower travel ban on March 6, trying to satisfy the courts by removing some of the most contentious elements of the original version.

But in a pointed decision that repeatedly invoked Mr. Trump’s public comments, the judge, Derrick K. Watson of Federal District Court in Honolulu, wrote that a “reasonable, objective observer” would view even the new order as “issued with a purpose to disfavor a particular religion, in spite of its stated, religiously neutral purpose.”

Judge Watson hung him with his own words, and he didn’t like it much:

Mr. Trump lashed out at Judge Watson during a campaign-style rally in Nashville late on Wednesday. Raising his voice to a hoarse shout, Mr. Trump accused the judge of ruling “for political reasons” and criticized the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which upheld the earlier decision against his administration and will hear any appeal to the Hawaii ruling.

“This ruling makes us look weak, which by the way we no longer are, believe me,” Mr. Trump said, to mounting cheers from a loyal crowd.

Mr. Trump even said he might reissue the initial version of the order, rather than the one blocked on Wednesday, which he described as “a watered-down version of the first one.”

So screw it. He really will ban Muslims next time, if it comes to that, or prove that this never ever was about Muslims at all, but that won’t fly:

Judge Watson flatly rejected the government’s argument that a court would have to investigate Mr. Trump’s “veiled psyche” to deduce religious animus. He quoted extensively from Mr. Trump’s campaign remarks that Hawaii cited in its lawsuit.

“For instance, there is nothing ‘veiled’ about this press release,” Judge Watson wrote, quoting a Trump campaign document titled “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

Those were his words, and there was this from Judge Watson:

He lambasted the government, in particular, for asserting that, because the ban did not apply to all Muslims in the world, it could not be construed as discriminating against Muslims.

“The illogic of the Government’s contentions is palpable,” Watson wrote. “The notion that one can demonstrate animus toward any group of people only by targeting all of them at once is fundamentally flawed.”

Hemingway once said that every writer needs a foolproof shockproof crap detector. Judge Watson has one of those, and Donald Trump doesn’t:

President Donald Trump railed against a judge’s order blocking his immigration restrictions on Wednesday, saying the ruling made America “look weak” – and drew chants from supporters of “lock her up!” when he attacked his former rival.

Yes, that made no sense, but little makes sense when someone lashes out and sneers:

While reading a legal code that the president said backed his authority to enact the travel ban, Trump interrupted himself to say that “fortunately” the former secretary of state was not in the White House.

“The law and Constitution give the president the power to suspend immigration when he deems – or she, or she. Fortunately, it will not be Hillary,” he said.

Chants of “Lock her up!” reverberated through the auditorium at the mention of Clinton. Trump walked from the podium and surveyed the crowd as they continued to chant – something that became a hallmark of his campaign.

He strutted around. It was one of those Mussolini moments – “Let us have a dagger between our teeth, a bomb in our hands, and an infinite scorn in our hearts.” The quote from the Italian guy was implied, and Trump won’t give up:

Trump promised to take the legal fight for his executive order “as far as it needs to go, including all the way up to the Supreme Court.”

There’s no reason to think he’ll succeed there, but maybe Hillary will end up in jail. That might satisfy him, and of course Obama should be in jail too. Ten days earlier, sometime before dawn, alone in his gilded Florida mansion, he had sent out four tweets. Obama had been wiretapping Trump’s phones. Obama was a sick man.

This was odd. Mark Levin had ranted about that on his radio show. He had no proof or facts, but he was sure that had happened. Breitbart News had written that up. Trump’s “chief strategist” is Steve Bannon, who used to run Breitbart News, and seems to slip Trump a Breitbart article now and then, so Trump ran with this one.

The implications are dire, of course. If Obama used the FBI to “get” a political enemy, ordering that Trump’s phones be tapped, that was a felony. Richard Nixon had tried to do that sort of thing with his FBI and got impeached for it. Rather than face an impeachment trial, Nixon resigned and got the hell out of town. Obama’s already out of town. Maybe he can go to jail. Trump’s staff woke up a few hours later and found that they would suddenly have to say to the press that all this was true.

Trump was lashing out. The stories of all the Russian connections were getting too hot. He was losing. Yeah, well, Obama should be in jail! So there!

That worked, until it didn’t. Yochi Dreazen covers the next loss:

President Donald Trump’s baseless claim that former President Barack Obama had tapped his phones during the election has been unraveling for so long now that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that no Republicans of any stature remain willing to defend it – and that even Trump’s closest aides are twisting themselves into pretzels to avoid having to explicitly concede that their boss seems to have made the entire thing up.

In the past few days alone, White House spokesperson Sean Spicer used actual air quotes to suggest Trump hadn’t literally been talking about wiretapping – even though the president’s own tweets had literally been talking about wiretapping – while Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway hinted that the real culprits were tiny cameras hidden inside microwave ovens (prompting this gem of a sentence from the New York Times: “Ms. Conway clarified on Monday that she was not accusing the former president of snooping via a kitchen appliance”).

A pair of even bigger blows came on Wednesday. First, House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes – a devoted Trump ally and defender – flatly said that “clearly the president was wrong” if you take his tweets about Obama’s wiretapping “literally.”

“I don’t think there was an actual tap of Trump Tower,” Nunes said.

Next, embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions, already under fire for misleading a Senate committee about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the US, pushed back at his own boss when a reporter asked if he’d ever given Trump “reason to believe that he was wiretapped by the previous administration.”

“Look, the answer is no,” Sessions replied.

This stumped Trump, so we got this:

President Donald Trump on Wednesday defended his explosive and so far unsupported claim that former President Barack Obama ordered an illegal wiretap of Trump Tower.

“Wiretap covers a lot of different things,” he told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson in an interview set to air Wednesday night, according to excerpts of the transcript. “I think you’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks.”

He wasn’t wrong. You’ll see. Just wait. Maybe it wasn’t wiretaps, exactly, but it was something big:

Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, seemed to walk back Trump’s comments on Monday, telling reporters that the president does not actually believe Obama personally wiretapped him. Instead, Spicer claimed, Trump’s tweets were alleging more general “surveillance” during the presidential campaign, even though the president had directly accused Obama of directing a wiretap. (The claim that Trump Tower was under any surveillance during the campaign also remains unproven.)

The transcript Fox released ahead of Carlson’s prime-time program suggests that Trump was making a similar argument – that “wiretap covers a lot of different things” – but it did not include the context surrounding his remarks.

Trump just doesn’t get it. When you win, say nothing. When you lose, say less. But he wants to get his way, so there was this:

President Donald Trump has overruled a decision by his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, to sideline a key intelligence operative who fell out of favor with some at the Central Intelligence Agency, two sources told Politico.

On Friday, McMaster told the National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence programs, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, that he would be moved to another position in the organization.

The conversation followed weeks of pressure from career officials at the CIA who had expressed reservations about the 30-year-old intelligence operative and pushed for his ouster.

But Cohen-Watnick appealed McMaster’s decision to two influential allies with whom he had forged a relationship while working on Trump’s transition team – White House advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. They brought the matter to Trump on Sunday, and the president agreed that Cohen-Watnick should remain as the NSC’s intelligence director, according to two people with knowledge of the episode.

Trump hates the CIA. He seems to trust Russia’s FSB and Alex Jones’ InfoWars and Breitbart. McMaster now has to clear things with Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law. He should probably now clear things with Trump’s daughter Ivanka and Kellyanne Conway too. McMaster has been castrated, or at least properly humiliated, which seems to have to do with the guy who finally admitted that he had been working as a paid agent of the Turkish government all along:

Trump has questioned the intelligence agencies’ findings that Russia tried to boost his campaign by hacking emails from allies of his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, and some of his allies have leveled allegations – much derided in the media – that there’s a “deep state” of career intelligence officers who are looking to undermine the new president, and to consolidate their power in the Trump era.

Cohen-Watnick was brought onto Trump’s transition team and then the NSC by a leading critic of the CIA: retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who was Cohen-Watnick’s boss at the Defense Intelligence Agency and preceded McMaster as national security adviser.

Cohen-Watnick and Flynn “saw eye to eye about the failings of the CIA human intelligence operations,” said a Washington consultant who travels in intelligence circles.

Trump will have his way, and Flynn was a great guy all along. Trump doesn’t lose.

Fred Kaplan has more:

Across the Potomac, in the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense James Mattis had to withdraw his choice for undersecretary for policy after meeting disapproval from the same duo. (The official story was that a few senators would have opposed her nomination, but their concerns could easily have been overcome.) Mattis has been fuming since the inauguration over White House attempts to stack his deck with political hacks – and over repeated rejections of his own choices.

Remarkably, Trump has not nominated a single second- or third-tier official in the Defense Department. Obama’s deputy secretary of defense, Robert Work, agreed to stay on until a replacement was found. But all of the under- and assistant secretaries left on Inauguration Day – some by choice, others at the insistence of the White House – and the people sitting in their chairs in an “acting” capacity are very junior with no authority to speak for the Trump administration.

And that’s not all:

The State Department is an even more hollow shell. As with the Pentagon, Trump hasn’t nominated a single deputy, under, or assistant secretary. Rex Tillerson’s choice for deputy, Elliott Abrams, a former Bush White House official, was rejected by Trump after he learned that Abrams had criticized him during the election – and so Tillerson roams the globe alone, accompanied neither by the press corps nor by a Trump-approved entourage, assuring allies that the United States is still committed to their security. Meanwhile, Trump meets with foreign leaders in the White House or at his Florida resort accompanied by Bannon, Kushner, and sometimes a few others, but not by Tillerson or anyone else from Foggy Bottom (a nickname that has never been more apt).

Still, Mad Dog did what he could:

Mattis has exerted his leverage on at least two occasions. The first came early on, when he avidly opposed a draft executive order that would have resumed CIA operations at “black” detention sites and reopened the debate over torture. (Mattis learned of the draft from newspaper reports.) Trump backed down, saying that he disagreed with Mattis, but would defer to him, on torture policy.

The second incident occurred more recently when Mattis delivered an ultimatum concerning Mira Ricardel, a Trump defense adviser, now at the Office of Presidential Personnel, who has been blocking Mattis’ picks. Either she goes or I go, Mattis told the White House, according to Wednesday’s issue of Defense News. The White House backed down, moving Ricardel to another position – for now.

Mattis figures he has considerable leverage. The Senate confirmed him, even though recently retired generals are barred by law from becoming secretary of defense unless both houses of Congress pass a waiver, precisely because he was viewed as a counterweight to Flynn and, ultimately, Trump. If Mattis were to resign, national security experts on Capitol Hill, in the think-tank world, and among U.S. allies would panic. However, someone in this position can threaten to resign only so often, and his leverage diminishes – he’s viewed as less and less of a team player – each time he puts his fate on the line.

So that leaves this:

Mattis and McMaster are trapped. Looking around, they’ve probably sensed that Team Trump is even more unhinged than they’d expected. On the one hand, their sense of integrity, combined with the betrayals and the chaos, might tempt them to resign. On the other hand, their sense of patriotism might compel them to stay: When some international crisis does occur, better that someone with a clear head is close to power.

Trump wins this one:

We all hoped that Mattis, McMaster, and to some degree Tillerson would add a dash of sane, worldly wisdom to Trump’s unsteady narcissism. And maybe they still will. But Trump is a shrewd player of tight-knit power games. He seems to be rolling them more than they’re containing him.

There will be four more years of this, or eight. When Trump wins, he brags and sneers. When he loses, he whines and lashes out. No one wins all the time. No one always gets their way. Trump refuses to accept that, even if every other adult has. This won’t end well.

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Slightly Modified Promises

“Of course I’ll respect you in the morning.” Don’t make promises you can’t keep. There’s a reason the divorce rate is so high in America, and spectacularly higher in the Bible Belt – where extravagant promises of faithfulness, and faith, come with the territory. Those folks are enthusiastic, but good intentions and enthusiasm always meet reality. John Barrymore put it nicely – “Love is the delightful interval between meeting a beautiful girl and discovering that she looks like a haddock.”

Everyone looks like a haddock eventually. That’s reality, but that lesson is hard, and it’s particularly hard in politics – the world of extravagant promises. Obamacare is awful – the Republicans promised to repeal it and replace it with something wonderful. Damn! Trump repeatedly said that everyone would be covered by this new wonderful whatever, and the coverage would be far cheaper for them, and far cheaper for the American economy, and it would be wonderful – but he ended up with haddock anyway. Fourteen million people will lose coverage in the first year, twenty-four million in ten years, the poor and elderly will get hammered. Medicaid will all but disappear – the very poor and the disabled, and the majority of those in nursing homes, waiting for the end, will be on their own. It stinks. It’s a haddock.

America should have known better. The man had said Trump University was wonderful, and then paid an out-of-court settlement of twenty-five million dollars, to reimburse all those who had good proof that they had been defrauded, and to make the whole thing go away, as his campaign began. He admitted nothing, but he wrote the check. And he wasn’t going to fix health care. He made promises, he was enthusiastic, but then it wasn’t just him. Republicans had been trying to repeal Obamacare since 2010 – and yes, the Affordable Care Act was passed fair and square, long ago, by both houses of Congress, and survived a major Supreme Court challenge too, and then a few more. It is the law, and there are normal procedures for repealing a law. You find the votes to pass something else in its place, but if you don’t have the votes, you don’t have the votes. They tried that fifty or sixty times, knowing that would go nowhere – but now, finally, they have votes – and their guy in the White House to sign what they come up with. They’ve been promising their voters they’d finally do this, and now they can keep their promise.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Josh Marshall explains the problem:

When a party has a huge amount staked on passing a piece of legislation, they usually find a way to do it, even if it seems all but impossible on the surface. A big counterexample to this rule of thumb was the failure of health care reform in 1994 when Democrats failed Even to hold a vote on a bill and were promptly crushed in the 1994 midterms. The success of reform in 2010 is a good example of the rule of thumb I’m talking about.

With all this said, on its face, things are looking pretty dicey at the moment for Obamacare repeal.

The reasons are obvious:

It is becoming increasingly clear that millions of people, actually tens of millions of people will lose health insurance under the bill supported by the House GOP leadership and the White House. This was obvious. But the CBO scoring, followed what is apparently an administration analysis showing even worse numbers, makes it all but impossible to deny.

That has led a growing number of Republican Senators to reject the bill, at least in its current form. The latest is that the Senate GOP leadership is actually putting together an amendment to make subsidies somewhat more generous. Clearly the current bill will be hard pressed to pass the Senate.

The problem is there’s a mounting rebellion on the right in the House. Why? Basically, the current bill isn’t ideologically pure enough. So it’s not clear the current bill can pass in the House either.

These folks don’t know what to do with this haddock:

The Senate GOP wants to push the bill to the left and the House GOP wants to push it to the right. A different way to put it is that it’s too stingy for Senate Republicans but too ideologically impure for House Republicans. Either way, it’s very hard to see how you get one bill through both chambers and to the President’s desk. For the moment, the White House seems inclined to let House Republicans take the ball and push the bill further to the right, even though this seems all but certain to make it an even harder sell in the Senate.

If that weren’t enough, we are also seeing some defections to the left in the House. But for the moment at least, pressure to make the bill more generous is coming from Senate Republicans.

They have a stalemate on their hands:

On its face, it looks hard to figure how Republicans will be able to pass anything on Obamacare. If they don’t pass anything, the law stays in place and that’s that. But here’s where the rule comes in. I think it is no exaggeration to say that if the ACA remains on the books untouched in 2018, it will be a political catastrophe for the GOP, whatever its impact on humans. Parties do a lot to avoid catastrophes like that.

So it will be avoidance now:

For the vast majority of players – elected officials – legislative politics is about avoiding exposure. Like in the wild, there’s safety in the pack, safety in the school. [Everyone seems to be talking about fish these days.] This is in part what Sen. Cotton of Arkansas was getting at as he’s been warning his former House colleagues not to vote on a politically perilous bill that’s going to die in the Senate anyway. We’re already seeing the first examples of fairly conservative Republicans distancing themselves from this bill.

Here’s the key. No one wants to be the last one holding on for an unpopular or dead bill. The more electeds pull their support, the more perilous the situation gets for those holding on.

That puts them in a tight spot:

If the bill goes down, you want to say you were always against it. If an unpopular bill goes through and everybody in the party supported it, at least then you have all the party machinery and all the forces of partisanship making the case for the vote. If you supported the legislation but the party abandons it, you’re really on your own in your next reelection fight.

What this all amounts to is that the political pressure against repealing Obamacare is working. Senators see the consequences in their states and are either moving into opposition to Trump care or getting skittish. The more those people (and the same applies to those getting cold feet in the House) are confirmed in their opposition, the better. Just as important, the more move into that camp the more intense the pressure gets on those that remain. More pressure to cave and more bad electoral consequences down the road.

And then the unthinkable happens:

It’s not impossible at all now that Obamacare will either not be touched at all or amended in very limited ways. If that happens, not only is that great for those who retain their health insurance, it is also disastrous politically for the GOP. Republican base voters have turned out in three straight elections around a unifying message of repealing Obamacare. If they can’t make that happen with full control of the entire government, it will turn the party’s wings against each other and be profoundly demoralizing to its voters.

Just as important, for a President victory begets victory and power – and vice versa. Of all President Trump’s capture on his voters, a huge amount is tied up in his claim to be a man of action, someone who gets things done. If he can’t manage this, it will hurt him a lot.

So that led to this:

The White House launched an intensive effort Tuesday to salvage support for the Republican plan to revise the Affordable Care Act, even as a growing number of lawmakers weighed in against the proposal.

One day after the Congressional Budget Office released its analysis showing that 14 million fewer Americans would be insured next year under the GOP plan, Vice President Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price went to Capitol Hill to rally backing for the proposal.

But widespread dissatisfaction among House and Senate lawmakers – conservatives and moderates alike – showed no signs of dissipating, increasing the chances that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) will have difficulty passing the bill if it goes to the House floor in the next two weeks, not to mention whether it can collect a majority in the Senate.

“I have serious concerns about the current draft of the House bill,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said in an interview Tuesday. “As written, I do not believe the House bill would pass the Senate.”

The White House is putting its political capital behind the Ryan proposal, however, sending emissaries to the Hill and meeting with skeptical lawmakers – including Cruz, who went to the White House on Tuesday along with a small group of conservatives.

There a lot of hard work going on, political hard work – if those three words actually go together – and then there’s fantasy:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) attempted to play down the severity of the GOP split after a closed-door party lunch attended by Pence, Price and some of the architects of the House bill, including Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tex.).

Following the lunch, McConnell tried to shift the focus from the coverage numbers to more favorable terrain for Republicans: the CBO’s projection that Ryan’s plan would reduce the federal budget deficit over the next decade and produce a 10 percent average decrease in premiums after that.

“Regarding the projection of fewer people purchasing, I think that’s the inevitable result of the government not making you purchase something you may not want,” McConnell told reporters. “And so we are hoping to have a more vibrant market that will attract a greater number of people to actually be able to buy, at an affordable cost, insurance that actually makes sense for them rather than one prescribed by the government.”

The government will save a lot of money, the deficit will shrink dramatically, the economy will take off like a rocket and everyone will be rich, and then everyone in America can buy wonderful insurance of all kinds, even the most expensive kind, and everyone in America will be happy. The Republican replacement for Obamacare isn’t a haddock, shining and stinking in the moonlight (John Randolph on Henry Clay: “So brilliant! So corrupt! Like a rotten mackerel in the moonlight, he shines and stinks.”) – the Republican replacement for Obamacare is a unicorn that farts rainbows.

Others disagree:

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who is normally chatty with reporters, was more guarded than usual coming out of the meeting. He declined to discuss specifics but said House leaders and the White House were making a good-faith effort to hear the concerns of Republican senators.

“They really are taking input. So I don’t think they would be over here unless they really do want to take input from folks,” Corker said.

Others think they shouldn’t take input, as Robert Costa and Philip Rucker report here:

A simmering rebellion of conservative populists loyal to President Trump is further endangering the GOP health-care push, with a chorus of influential voices suspicious of the proposal warning the president to abandon it.

From headlines at Breitbart to chatter on Fox News Channel and right-wing talk radio, as well as among friends who have Trump’s ear, the message has been blunt: The plan being advanced by congressional Republican leaders is deeply flawed – and, at worst, a political trap.

Trump’s allies worry that he is jeopardizing his presidency by promoting the bill spearheaded by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), arguing that it would fracture Trump’s coalition.

In short, this is Ryan’s haddock, not yours, so get back to being who you are, and keep your damned promises:

Trump loyalists warned that the president was at risk of violating some of his biggest campaign promises – such as providing broad health coverage for all Americans and preserving Medicaid and other entitlement programs – in service to an ideological project championed for years by Ryan and other establishment Republicans.

“Trump figures things out pretty quickly, and I think he’s figuring out this situation, how the House Republicans did him a disservice,” said Christopher Ruddy, a longtime Trump friend. “President Trump is a big-picture, pragmatic Republican, and unfortunately the Ryan Republican plan doesn’t capture his worldview.”

Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media, published a column Tuesday urging Trump to “ditch” the current bill.

And then there are the mystery men:

Keeping Republicans on edge are several Trump advisers with tenuous ties to Ryan and the party establishment who might be more responsive than others to outside pressure, including chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller.

That’s not quite right. There’s nothing tenuous here:

The cascade of opposition within Trump’s movement started flowing soon after the bill was unveiled last week and picked up speed this week. On Breitbart – the anti-establishment, conservative news site that has been a platform for Trumpism and was once run by Bannon – article after article has railed against a bill its headline writers excoriate as “RyanCare.”

One heavily promoted story said that RyanCare was “a perverse economic system” and featured an interview with Rep. David Brat (R-Va.), a tea party hero who unseated then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014.

Breitbart published leaked audio of Ryan on Monday that could undermine his relationship with Trump. The recording is of Ryan on a conference call with House Republicans last year, immediately following the release of the “Access Hollywood” video in which Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women. Ryan said on the call that he was “not going to defend Donald Trump – not now, not in the future.”

Bannon and Miller really do despise Ryan, and they’re not alone:

Fox News host Eric Bolling, who once considered joining the Trump administration and is friendly with the president, published an op-ed Tuesday on the network’s website that said Ryan and the “establishment GOP have pulled a fast one on President Trump.”

“It’s time for President Trump to scrap the GOP health-care bill,” Bolling wrote.

Conservative talk-radio host Laura Ingraham, a friend of Trump’s who was considered for a job in the White House, said Tuesday on Fox News that the Ryan bill is a “trap.”

“I think Donald Trump is going to get caught on this in 2020,” she said, referring to the next presidential election. “I’d like to spend an hour talking to him about it. I think this is a trap set for Trump, and it’s going to be bad.”

Paul Ryan really is an evil person, isn’t he? That’s the word, but Christopher Ruddy, the Newsmax guy, really did write an odd op-ed, with these two key points:

Reject the phony private health insurance market as the panacea. Look to an upgraded Medicaid system to become the country’s blanket insurer for the uninsured.

Tie Medicaid funding to states with the requirement that each pass legislation to allow for a truly nationwide healthcare market.

Kevin Drum finds this curious:

In other words, Medicaid for All. It’s not Medicare for All, but it’s pretty interesting coming from a stone conservative.

Now, Ruddy also wants some other stuff. That “truly nationwide” health care market is, I assume, code for allowing insurers to sell across state lines. He also wants “modest” tort reform and expansion of HSAs.

But those are minor things that could be negotiated. The interesting thing here is Ruddy’s belief that hatred of insurance companies is what really drives Trump supporters. Needless to say, plenty of liberals hate insurance companies too. I don’t especially share this hatred, but private health insurance companies are inefficient, confusing, and administratively costly. I’d be happy to see them go away.

That makes this an interesting proposal. I doubt that liberals (or the medical industry) would support it unless Medicaid was bolstered in some way, but it certainly has the virtues of being (a) really simple and (b) truly universal if done right. I wonder if something like this has any chance of passage.

No, that’s not happening:

It’s worth pointing out that it does have one fatal flaw: it would cost a lot of money. That’s the one thing conservatives are dead set against.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Obamacare works well enough for now, but of course it may be dead already, as Kevin Drum notes here:

Paul Ryan and President Trump have been insisting for months that Obamacare is collapsing, failing, imploding, spiraling quickly into death. This is ridiculous, of course. It’s covering more than 20 million people at a lower cost than originally projected, and by any fair appraisal it’s been hugely successful.

But that’s not to say it has no problems. The Obamacare insurance pool is skewed toward the old and sick, and this has made it hard for insurers to turn a profit. Several smallish insurers have already left the market, and there are hundreds of counties in the US with only one insurer left on the exchanges. This is probably not fatal – the CBO says the Obamacare market is stable – and it’s a problem that could be addressed fairly easily and inexpensively. Still, it does put the Obamacare market in modestly perilous shape.

Actually, its days may be numbered:

Even if the godawful Republican repeal effort fails, there’s every reason to think that Congress will try again. What’s more, it’s clear that they’ll do everything they can to undermine Obamacare along the way. In a few months, insurance companies have to decide whether they want to participate in the exchange market in 2018, and I wonder what they’ll decide. The uncertainty is sky high now, and that means they have little incentive to continue. Remember, most insurers swallowed big losses early on in hopes of building a stable, profitable market later. But what’s the point of absorbing losses if it looks like – at best – years and years of chaos ahead?

It may be that 2018 is safe. The exchanges are pretty close to profitable now, and it’s probably worth it for most insurers to stay on board for at least another year to see what happens. Still, I wonder. Merely by upending everything and making it clear just how dedicated they are to cutting taxes on the rich and cutting health coverage for the poor, have Republicans already managed to effectively repeal Obamacare without passing a single page of legislation?

Josh Marshall did say that if Obamacare remains on the books untouched in 2018, it will be a political catastrophe for the Republicans, whatever its impact on humans, so they really do have get rid of it – for their own survival. One way or another, they will keep their promise. And they’ll wake up with a haddock. We all will.

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The Expected Perfect Storm

The second Monday in March was full of dire warnings. The National Weather Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) branch of the Department of Commerce – a science-based service not yet eliminated by the new Trump administration – said there was a blizzard coming. It would hit Washington and Baltimore first, and then move up to Philadelphia, and then it would bury New York City, and then Boston, and then slam Maine, and then Newfoundland – and then it would be gone. Inland, this storm would bury most of Pennsylvania, and most of New York, and all of inland New England. This is the big one, just like in the Wolfgang Petersen movie – without George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. A storm barrels in from the Great Plains and meets up with a storm barreling up from the Gulf of Mexico. These things happen now and then. The results are predictable, the “perfect storm” – although someone at the National Weather Service decided to name this storm “Stella” – the name of the woman who finally drives Marlon Brando totally crazy in that Streetcar Named Desire thing. That’s a nice touch. Brando ends of standing there, ripped in his ripped t-shirt, shouting her name, alone, as the stage lights dim and everything is over. There will be a lot of that going around.

That may not be so. The National Weather Service could be wrong. Maybe nothing much will happen, other than a few dismal days. Nothing is ever as bad as it seems. People like to scare themselves, and experts sometimes are not expert in their predictions. That happens too – although the National Weather Service did get Katrina and Sandy right. The folks in New Orleans and New Jersey will tell you that – but others will tell you to calm down. Sure, this looks bad, but it really isn’t.

That seems to be a Republican thing, at least when they’re in charge of things. Dire predictions are stupid. Dire predictions of a perfect storm are even stupider. The repeal of Obamacare and its replacement with something or other may produce a few dismal days, but everything will be fine, and then wonderful. Just as the National Weather Service could be wrong, the Congressional Budget Office could be wrong. That was the word as the new blizzard was (or wasn’t) forming. Ignore the storm warnings, but the Congressional Budget Office was predicting the perfect storm:

House Republicans’ proposal to rewrite federal health-care law would more than reverse the gains the Affordable Care Act has made in the number of Americans with health insurance, while curbing the federal deficit, according to a widely anticipated forecast by congressional analysts.

The analysis, released late Monday afternoon by the Congressional Budget Office, predicts that 24 million fewer people would have coverage a decade from now than if the Affordable Care Act remains intact, nearly doubling the share of Americans who are uninsured from 10 percent to 19 percent. The office projects the number of uninsured people would jump 14 million after the first year.

Damn! Trump said that everyone would be covered, and the coverage would be far cheaper for them, and for us all, and it would be wonderful, but there is that silver lining:

The GOP legislation, which has been speeding through House committees since it was introduced a week ago, would lower the deficit by $337 billion during that time, primarily by lessening spending on Medicaid and government aid for people buying health plans on their own.

Lowering the deficit is always good,if you’re a Republican, but there are costs involved:

The report predicted that premiums would be 15 percent to 20 percent higher in the first year compared with those under the Affordable Care Act but 10 percent lower on average after 2026. By and large, older Americans would pay “substantially” more and younger Americans less.

That may be a way for the Republicans to recapture the vote of everyone under thirty who now thinks these guys are anti-gay anti-black anti-Hispanic anti-women anti-science anti-everything fools, with tiny hearts to match Donald Trump’s tiny hands, but probably not. It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing – as Bob Dylan sang back in the sixties. This is still not a party for young people, so it was time for damage control. It was time to say the weather report was wrong:

The report’s arrival produced starkly different tacks from the White House and Capitol Hill – with top aides to the president immediately seeking to discredit it while the House’s Republican leaders praised the report for reinforcing their argument that the plan curbs federal spending and gives Americans the freedom to be insured or not – their choice.

“Just absurd,” was the way Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, responded to the forecast, while Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said, “The CBO report’s coverage numbers defy logic.”

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) meanwhile said in a Fox News interview that the report “exceeded” his expectations, and he jumped on its prediction of a smaller deficit to try to assuage the chamber’s most conservative members, many of whom oppose the idea of new tax credits to help some Americans buy coverage on their own.

Declaring that the plans would usher in “the most fundamental entitlement reform in a generation,” Ryan said the legislation “is about giving people more choices and better access to a plan they want and can afford. When people have more choices, costs go down. That’s what this report shows.”

Ryan even issued an official statement about that:

I recognize and appreciate concerns about making sure people have access to coverage. Under Obamacare, we have seen how government-mandated coverage does not equal access to care, and now the law is collapsing. Our plan is not about forcing people to buy expensive, one-size-fits-all coverage. It is about giving people more choices and better access to a plan they want and can afford. When people have more choices, costs go down. That’s what this report shows. And, as we have long said, there will be a stable transition so that no one has the rug pulled out from under them.

Ed Kilgore countered with this:

The one thing Ryan got right is that the CBO estimates the $935 billion in spending reductions via smaller tax credits and Medicaid cuts – all mostly affecting the working poor – will exceed the $599 billion in tax cuts, mostly targeted to the wealthy. That’s not an argument that will fare very well once it is understood.

The argument that people losing coverage have the freedom to decide they don’t want it anyway isn’t a big winner, either. I would expect some reactions to Ryan to quote songwriter Kris Kristofferson to the effect that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Everyone remembers different songs from long ago, but the storm is here:

Early signs emerged Monday night that the Congressional Budget Office report was not helping to solidify GOP support. Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) announced he would oppose the bill.

“I do believe that we can enact meaningful health care reforms that put the patient and health care provider back at the center of our health care system, but this bill is not the right answer,” he said in a Facebook post.

Wittman’s stance could represent a new front of dissent among House Republicans. A six-term member who leads a House Armed Services subcommittee and represents a district that favored Trump by 12 percentage points, Wittman is neither a hard-right firebrand nor a wary moderate from a Medicaid expansion state. Rather, he is the sort of mainstream conservative that Ryan is counting on to toe the party line and pass the bill.

This was just too much for him:

The analysis predicts that the number of people without health coverage would rise to 52 million by 2026, compared with 28 million if the Affordable Care Act remains intact. That erosion would mean that about 1 in 5 U.S. residents would be uninsured by 2026 – compared to 1 in 10 uninsured now and 1 in 6 who were uninsured before the Affordable Care Act was enacted.

The reduction in the number of insured people would result from three factors. A provision rescinding the penalty imposed on the uninsured could prompt many Americans to drop their health plans. After that, tax credits that are less generous than current subsidies could make insurance unaffordable to more people. Finally, some states may undo the expansion of their Medicaid programs.

Medicaid covers the very poor and the disabled and the majority of those in nursing homes, waiting for the end. It will come sooner now:

In its current form, the House GOP proposal would administer Medicaid by giving each state a fixed amount of funding per person in the program rather than covering a fixed percentage of its Medicaid costs, no matter how high. The plan would also replace the Affordable Care Act’s federal insurance subsidies with age- and income-based tax credits, which would involve considerably less spending, the report shows.

While the deficit would be lower, the legislation also would reduce federal revenue by $592 billion by 2026 by repealing several taxes that the Affordable Care Act created to help pay for more people to get insurance – notably taxes on high-income Americans, hospitals and health insurers.

“They are implementing the biggest transfer of wealth in our history,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Monday. “In terms of insurance coverage, it’s immoral. In terms of giving money to the rich at the expense of working families, it is indecent and wrong.”

That’s the plan:

The estimates projected a significant drop in Medicaid enrollment. Next year, the forecast says, about 5 million fewer people would be on Medicaid. By 2026, the program’s rolls would shrink by nearly 15 million – almost 1 in 4 of the 68 million currently in the program.

And there’s the detail of that “young folks” thing:

The Congressional Budget Office also predicted substantial disparities in the effect the legislation would have on insurance premiums for younger versus older consumers.

If the GOP plan is enacted, a 21-year-old making $68,200 would pay an average of $1,450 for a year’s worth of insurance premiums after the new tax credits, compared with $5,100 under the current law.

On the other hand, the cost of a year’s worth of premiums would stay about the same for a 64-year-old at the same income level. For a 64-year-old making $26,500, the cost would rise sharply, from $1,700 to $14,600.

That’s an 859 percent increase, from 6 percent of that person’s income to 55 percent, so health insurance becomes a clear impossibility for that 64-year-old, and there’s this:

The analysis also forecast a reduction in the number of Americans who get insurance through their employers, in part because the new tax credits would be available to people with higher incomes than with the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies. Some employers would also drop coverage, the Congressional Budget Office projected.

Everyone gets screwed – that’s the forecast for this storm – and Dylan Matthews suggests why:

The Congressional Budget Office’s assessment of Republicans’ plan to replace Obamacare is a description of one of the largest, most significant income redistribution programs the US government has ever considered – from the poor to the wealthy rather than the other way around.

The plan, the CBO concludes, would take more than $1 trillion away from programs targeting poor and middle-class families, to fund an $883 billion tax cut targeted at the wealthy. It is upward income redistribution of a truly massive scale.

“No legislation enacted in recent decades cut low-income programs this much – or even comes close,” Robert Greenstein, the founder and president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Washington’s leading advocate for poor and low-income Americans, says.

This seems to be class warfare by the rich against the poor, given that tax credits are redirected to the rich:

There are the cuts to the insurance subsidies established under Obamacare, which helped people making up to four times the poverty rate ($98,400 for a family of four) pay their premiums for private individual insurance. The Republican plan would replace the sliding-scale subsidies of Obamacare, which help lower-income people more, with lower, flat credits that vary only by age, and which only begin phasing out for couples making $150,000 or more.

In other words, the Republican credits will be smaller, and they will be more targeted toward the rich. The result is a $312 billion net spending cut, and the $361 billion in tax credit spending that remains would be redirected to richer people.

And the biggest tax cuts help the rich:

The Republican plan would reduce federal revenues by $883 billion over 10 years. About $210 billion of that comes from eliminating the employer and individual mandates; the former is paid by companies that don’t insure their employees, and the latter is progressive, as it’s levied as a percentage of income.

But the bulk of the tax cuts would come from eliminating specific provisions meant to raise money for the Medicaid expansion and insurance subsidies in Obamacare, rather than to make sure the insurance market functions properly. The biggest of those is the 3.8 percent tax the Affordable Care Act applied to capital gains, dividend, and interest income for families with $250,000 or more in income ($125,000 for singles). The CBO finds that getting rid of this tax costs $157.6 billion over 10 years.

Repealing that tax is a change that, by definition, only helps the rich, or at least the affluent. If you’re part of a married couple and, like the vast majority of Americans, make less than $250,000 a year, or earn more than that but have little investment income, it doesn’t affect you at all. The Tax Policy Center finds that repealing the tax would amount to an average tax cut of $0 for households in the bottom 90 percent – those making $208,500 or below. A handful of people in the 80th to 95th percentiles would see cuts, but the vast majority wouldn’t.

By contrast, members of the top 0.1 percent, who each on average make more than $3.75 million annually, would get an average tax cut of $165,090.

That’s redistribution upwards, and a reversal:

The Affordable Care Act was one of the single largest downward redistributions of income in American history, made more so when considered in the context of the Obama administration’s increases in taxes on the rich and expansions of tax credits for the poor. This was a point that Jason Furman, Obama’s chief economist, made well in a speech last October.

“In concert with the effects of the ACA coverage provisions, changes in tax policy since 2009 will by 2017 boost incomes for families in the bottom quintile by 18 percent, or $2,200 (the equivalent to about a decade of income gains), and in the second quintile by about 6 percent, or $1,500, relative to what they would have been under the continuation of 2008 policies,” Furman noted. “Under President Obama, the Federal investment in inequality has increased by about 0.8 percent of potential GDP, more than any previous president since the Great Society.”

You don’t have to take Furman’s word for it. A simple glance at the funding mechanisms of the ACA – things like the surtaxes on income above $250,000 – and what it spent money on (namely health insurance for the poor) makes it clear that it takes money from the rich and gives it to the poor, in the form of health insurance.

And now we go the other way:

The American Health Care Act, the Republican health care legislation backed by President Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan, undoes basically all of those components. And then it goes a step further, by slashing Medicaid to below its pre–Affordable Care Act levels using a per capita cap.

The AHCA would reverse one of the greatest actions against inequality ever taken by the federal government, and then increase inequality yet further. It is an act of class warfare against low-income Americans, waged for the benefit of the handful of rich taxpayers affected by Obamacare’s surtaxes.

And there are the minor details:

A congressional plan to make Planned Parenthood ineligible for federal funding would leave many women without services to help them avoid pregnancy, resulting in thousands of additional births, according to a new federal budget analysis…

The analysts estimated that excluding the women’s health organization from the Medicaid program for one year, as congressional Republicans have proposed, would particularly affect low-income areas and communities without many health care options, leaving 15 percent of those people “without services that help women avert pregnancy.”

Planned Parenthood provides reproductive and other services, including abortion, to 2.5 million men and women nationally.

Those folks are out of luck. It’s the abortion thing. Abortion may be legal – that’s settled law – but that doesn’t matter. Those tiny hearts that match Donald Trump’s tiny hands will have their way.

There’s a storm coming, and Paul Krugman offers one assertion and asks two questions:

The assertion is that something like this was to be expected. The CBO came in even worse on coverage than most predicted, but it was obvious that the news would be terrible because that’s what the logic of the situation told us. Obamacare imposes a mandate to induce healthy people to sign up, offers means-tested subsidies to make insurance affordable and expands Medicaid to take care of people with really low incomes. Trumpcare eliminates the mandate, slashes subsidies overall and redirects them to those who don’t need them and sharply cuts Medicaid. Of course that leads to a huge drop in coverage.

Or to put it differently, Obamacare is actually an intelligently designed system, and Republican claims that they could do much better even while slashing funding so they could cut taxes on the rich were always obvious nonsense. Trumpcare is a slapdash, incompetent piece of legislation; but even a much more competent set of people couldn’t have done better given the constraints of Republican Party ideology.

Given that, there are the questions:

First, can this legislation still go through? I have learned never to underestimate the cravenness of Republican “moderates,” who may posture to the center but almost always cave to the hard right when it matters. But even so, it’s hard to imagine this act of cruelty getting 50 senators. And if it can’t pass the Senate, won’t right-wing purists in the House decide to advertise their purity by voting against a bill that still falls short of free-market ideals rather than vote for Obamacare 0.5?

Second, what were Republican leaders thinking? Something like this CBO score was a foregone conclusion; would it really have mattered much if it were 15 million losing insurance, not 24 million? How was this supposed to work out politically?

This was the expected perfect storm, and late in the day, Politico revealed how expected it was:

The White House’s own internal analysis of the GOP plan to repeal and replace Obamacare show even steeper coverage losses than the projections by the Congressional Budget Office, according to a document viewed by POLITICO on Monday.

The executive branch analysis forecast that 26 million people would lose coverage over the next decade, versus the 24 million CBO estimate – a finding that undermines White House efforts to discredit the forecasts from the nonpartisan CBO.

The analysis found that under the American Health Care Act the coverage losses would include 17 million for Medicaid, six million in the individual market and three million in employer-based plans.

A total of 54 million individuals would be uninsured in 2026 under the GOP plan, according to the White House analysis. That’s nearly double the number projected under current law.

They knew all along this storm was coming, and it was going to be worse than anyone imagined. This is the perfect storm, but perfect for what? Everyone is now appalled at them. At least they’ll have a quiet snow day to think about that. Washington is shut down. The National Weather Service was right too.

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Going Double-Dutch

Globalization and nationalism don’t mix well. They can’t, but this has been going on a long time. In the seventeenth century the Dutch were a global trading power, the global trading power, and the British wanted to be just that. That’s where the insults come from. A Dutch oven isn’t really an oven – it’s just a big pot – and a Dutch door isn’t much of a door – it’s more a gate with a window on top – and no one needs a Dutch uncle. That guy is useless to the family – and of course a Dutch treat isn’t a treat at all. You pay your own way – but the British were in a bad mood. The Great Fire of London in 1666 was bad enough, but the next year the Dutch fleet sailed up the Thames, then up the River Medway to Chatham, where they burned three capital ships and towed away the Unity and the Royal Charles, the flagship of the English fleet – and that put a quick and humiliating end to the second of four trade wars with the Dutch. The British fought back with idioms we still use today, about Dutch this and Dutch that. Sure, the British lost – they were humiliated – but everyone knows the Dutch are useless. The idioms were all they had. The only good thing that came of that second trade war was James II taking the Dutch colony of New Netherland and renaming it New York – but we eventually ended up with New Amsterdam, the Big Apple. This didn’t go well.

All this ended with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, placing William of Orange on the English throne as co-ruler with his wife Mary – both royal cousins from the Netherlands. This put the English on the same side as the Dutch, so they could gang up on France. The Dutch were toast, but France never was much of trading power, and French and Indian Wars and then the Louisiana Purchase got them out of North America. England prevailed – and then the Sun Never Set on the British Empire – until it did. Individual nations got very proud and fought to take over the world and make it just like them. There were two World Wars about that. Those bled England dry. There would be no more Empire, just a loose Commonwealth of this and that. Globalization lost. Blood and soil nationalism, with its one-culture one-language emphasis, actually won.

America took up the slack. America hadn’t been bled dry by those wars. America became the default global trade empire, without ever using that word, getting rich by selling its products everywhere and importing massive amounts cool stuff too. Life was good, and when diplomacy didn’t work, wars were fought to “open new markets” – or to stop communism, which might have been the same thing. It’s been that way for seventy years, and the only recent competition was the European Union, formed to tamp down the nationalism there. Free trade across borders, and free movement across borders, and a common currency, would put an end to that previous nonsense. No one there would ever be bled dry by that blood and soil nationalism that had ruined everything. They’d be like the Americans, but with more style.

The one-culture one-language thing, however, turned out to be a problem. Until this year, and Donald Trump and his Svengali, Steve Bannon, that had never been a problem here. We’ve proudly said we’re a “melting pot” where everyone has something to offer, even the Irish, and since the sixties, even the black folks, and now our gay brothers and sisters too – maybe. We’re still working on the Muslim thing. Hispanics are an issue too, for some people. The swastikas being painted on synagogues across the country each weekend now are a problem too. We’re working on it, in spite of Donald Trump. Many are working on it because of Donald Trump.

They’re not working on it in Europe. Britain joined the EU but decided to keep their own currency, which might have been a warning sign. Last summer they voted to leave the EU entirely, sort of. Free trade across borders was fine with them, but they’d had enough with free movement across borders. There were too many people in their streets and in their schools, and damned near everywhere, that didn’t look like them or think like them or act like them, and who talked funny. Keep them out – but the EU is pushing back. Free movement across borders is part of the deal – an essential part of the deal. Free trade across borders isn’t an a la carte option. You’re in or you’re out. Expect tariffs. Expect a shrinking economy. Sure, Donald Trump has guaranteed Britain a special bilateral trade deal, so they can trade with us and forget Europe entirely, but being cut out of open trade with all of Europe won’t be wonderful. That could be deadly. Negotiations continue. Globalization and nationalism don’t mix well.

It’s the same in France. There’s a good chance that Marine Le Pen will soon be their next president – and she has a specific one-culture one-language problem with Muslims, and wants France to drop the Euro and leave the European Union, and be “France” again. Her father is Jean-Marie Le Pen – he ran for president once too and his problem was with Jews – he’s Holocaust denier. He stood no chance. She stands a chance. Vladimir Putin thinks she’s wonderful. Donald Trump likes her. Her father is on record saying he’s a big Trump fan. A special bilateral trade deal might follow too.

There’s something in the air:

The Paris region has passed a new rule obliging laborers on public building sites to use French, copying action taken elsewhere in France to squeeze out foreign workers.

The Ile de France region passed a “Small Business Act” on Thursday aimed at funneling more local public contracts to small French businesses.

It includes a so-called Moliere clause which will oblige firms working on publicly-funded building projects, or in other areas such as transport or training, to use French as their working language…

The French government has long criticized EU rules that allow companies to bring in much cheaper foreign workers temporarily, often from Eastern Europe, who undercut locals.

Try that in the United States and all commercial and residential construction would shut down. Moliere would be puzzled too.

And then there are the Dutch. Afshin Molavi, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, takes us on a little tour of a curious old building:

It’s no exaggeration to say that modern market capitalism was born on this spot on this month, exactly 415 years ago, when a trading company known as the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie – the United East India Company – was born.

Walk into the silent, empty courtyard of the Dutch East India Company, as it is better-known in English, and you will be taking steps inside the genesis of our modern world. The VOC, as its brand notes on the door, was arguably the world’s first modern multinational company, pioneering the kind of global trade networks that we take for granted today. If we barely bat an eyelash that we have apples from New Zealand at our local grocery store, or spices from India one click away, it’s partly because of the Dutch East India Company’s trading prowess.

That trading prowess explains the four Anglo-Dutch trade wars long ago, but it was a good thing:

The Dutch East India Company drove what has become common to our modern way of life: consumerism. In the process, it also created whole groups of people and regions dependent on exporting goods abroad. In a sense, it lit the fire of modern globalization. The Dutch East India Company also anchored Holland’s 17th-century golden age, when Amsterdam had become the richest city in the world and European intellectuals from Rene Descartes to John Locke flocked to the city.

Amsterdam spawned the 17th-century Dutch enlightenment, which, as author Russell Shorto persuasively argues in his book “Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City,” was a precursor to the enlightenment wave that swept through Europe in the 18th century. That enlightenment, in turn, spawned revolutions against the old order and led ultimately to the creation of a unique experiment in governance: the United States of America. In that sense, the Western world of democracies owes a debt to the Dutch of the 17th century.

There’s a reason for that:

Amsterdam had a secret sauce that made it, well, great: state-sanctioned religious tolerance (in an age when that was scarce), innovative and risk-taking entrepreneurs, an incipient individualism, government that invested in trade, and the most sophisticated capital markets known to mankind.

It seems that they got that “melting pot” thing working just fine, making everyone rich and happy, but globalization and nationalism still don’t mix well.

All of this matters 415 years later not purely for academic purposes but because we are, if we believe conservative French presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen, at a defining moment in history, when “we are experiencing the end of one world and the birth of a new one.” For Le Pen and others hoping for “the end of one world,” all eyes are on Geert Wilders, the Dutch firebrand anti-Islam populist slated for a strong showing in the parliamentary elections this week.

We now know the type:

Wilders has a Trumpian way of dominating the headlines. With provocative tweets and a distinctive mane of bleached blond hair, the leader of the Party for Freedom, or PVV, is riding a wave of anxiety in the Netherlands aimed at political elites, globalization, migrants and what Wilders derisively calls the “Islamization” of the country. He has also referred to “Moroccan scum,” and, as the New York Times reports, has been the recipient of financing from U.S. organizations.

Geert Wilders has his American alt-right fans and funders, for good reason:

Wilders is channeling an anti-immigrant sentiment and suspicion of Islam shared by at least a third of the country, according to Pew Research – albeit maybe not as extreme. In his bombastic and hateful rhetoric, he is, in some senses, an extreme overreaction to famously liberal Netherlands, giving voice to a hinterland (or heartland, depending on your perspective) that sees elites in the capital, the Hague, or cosmopolitan Amsterdam, as out of touch. It has become a familiar story of our era, one that fueled Brexit in Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

Still, they’re working on that:

For some two decades, Netherlands, under the guise of multiculturalism, hardly made much of an effort to integrate Muslim and other migrants. Indeed, the phenomenon of “black schools” – composed mostly of children of migrants – and “white schools” of Dutch natives reflects multiculturalism gone wrong. Dutch political leaders today are more strictly enforcing the integration of migrant families, especially those seeking citizenship.

Don’t expect that from Betsy DeVos and her charter-schools-for-everyone Department of Education. Let parents choose schools with absolutely no integration of the kids of migrant families, if they wish. That’s freedom. Expect this:

Like most rabble-rousing populists, Wilders offers simple (and frightening) answers to complex matters. To say that the Islamic faith is worse than the Nazi Party is not only outrageous, but also a great insult to the 78 percent of Jews of Holland who died under Nazi rule – the highest death rate of European Jewry. Pledging to ban all mosques will incense devout Muslims for sure, but, even more, will alienate the hundreds of thousands of Dutch Muslims who are neither extreme nor particularly devout or mosque-going and are getting along just fine in Dutch society. Identity will once again become a weapon of politics.

In a political season of rising populism, suspicion toward globalization and Muslims, and repudiations of the status quo, the elections in the Netherlands will send a signal to the world about where we are headed next.

Yeah, but Donald Trump is a fan of Wilders. There’s something in the air, and Elliot Hannon simply notes this:

Republican Congressman Steve King – who has a history of tip-toeing around white-nationalist rhetoric – fired off a tweet Sunday afternoon that reeked of white-supremacist ideology. The tweet referenced “culture and demographics” being fundamental to European and American “destiny” before closing with: “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

It is hard to read that any other way than it was written. It is an apparent, explicit call to protect white “culture and demographics” from immigrants. It’s the type of rhetoric that you might find at a Klan rally. Steve King is a congressman from Iowa.

The tweet was in support of far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who has risen in the polls on the back of similarly virulent anti-Islam and anti-immigrant rhetoric to the point where Wilders’ Dutch Freedom Party could come out on top in parliamentary elections in the Netherlands on Wednesday.

That might happen, but Nick Ottens points out something else:

The absence of a serious manifesto did not suggest that the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders had any intention of governing after the election on Wednesday. Now two former elected officials of his Freedom Party have confirmed that he isn’t interested in power – nor the responsibility that comes with it.

Jhim van Bemmel, who sat in parliament from 2010 to 2012, told the broadcaster “Human” that Wilders pulled out of accord with center-right parties that year for fear of losing popularity.

For two years, Wilders supported a minority government led by his center-right rival, Mark Rutte. He walked out when the ruling parties called for more austerity.

Wilders maintains that he quit in order to protect pensioners from cuts. Van Bemmel disputed that at “total nonsense”.

The man has no firm positions – he just wants to win and let it go at that – and this sounds familiar:

Van Bemmel also alleged that Wilders deliberately antagonized other parties with his infamous “fewer Moroccans” statement in 2014.

After placing second in local elections that year, Wilders asked Freedom Party supporters in The Hague if they wanted “more or fewer Moroccans” in the city. The crowd chanted “Fewer! Fewer!”

Van Bemmel said Wilders knew this hate speech would make a coalition deal impossible. By forcing the mainstream parties to speak out against it, he could maintain that the “establishment” had, once again, colluded to keep him out of power.

That was Trump’s primaries and campaign, and there’s this:

He has refused to release a serious program (it is literally one page with eleven bullet points) and he has so far refused to defend it in election debates.

He tweets and gives interviews to gossip magazines and tabloids, but avoids the serious media, which – taking a cue from Donald Trump – he calls fake news.

And that doesn’t matter:

Freedom Party diehards don’t seem bothered. Around 15 percent of the Dutch are voting for Wilders no matter what.

But his consistent refusal to take responsibility vexes conservative voters who want politicians to do more than talk about the problems they see in Dutch society.

The parallels to Trump are a bit spooky, and the Associated Press has more:

Wilders has made headlines and drawn condemnation for more than a decade for his anti-Islam rhetoric, which has included comparing the Quran with Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and calling for a tax on the veils some Muslim women wear.

At the same time, support for his party has grown in fits and starts, mirroring what he calls a “Patriotic Spring” sweeping Europe. Despite slipping in the polls recently, the Party for Freedom remains on track to become one of the biggest parties in the 150-seat lower house.

And there are the tweets:

As protests and riots unfolded this weekend in Rotterdam over a Dutch government decision to block the visits of two Turkish ministers, Wilders fired off regular incendiary tweets.

“Go away and never come back… and take all your Turkish fans from The Netherlands with you please. #byebye,” he said in one as Turkey’s family affairs minister was at the center of a tense standoff at the Turkish consulate.

And there’s the lack of detail:

His one-page election manifesto is light on economic policy and heavy on pledges to “de-Islamize” the Netherlands, a nation of 17 million where an estimated 5 percent of the adult population is Muslim.

Wilders calls Islam a threat to western democracy and vows to close all mosques and ban the Quran, if he wins power.

And there’s the vindictiveness:

Wilders set up his party so that he is its only member, allowing him to keep a tight rein on its message and lawmakers.

Wilders “rules his kingdom like an emperor,” brother Paul Wilders said in a recent interview with Dutch broadcaster RTL. “Whoever contradicts him is finished, family or not.”

Yep, he’s Donald Trump, and then there’s that man who doesn’t matter anymore:

In the first public outing for the president since his wife Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election, the former president warned against the divisiveness of current nationalist movements around the world.

“People who claim to want the nation-state are actually trying to have a pan-national movement to institutionalize separatism and division within borders all over the world. It’s like we’re all having an identity crisis at once – and it is an inevitable consequence of the economic and social changes that have occurred at an increasingly rapid pace.”

The event was in honor of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was remembered by Clinton as exemplifying the spirit of inclusion and problem-solving, the opposite of the characteristics he described in nationalist movements…

Clinton juxtaposed Rabin’s example against our natural tendencies, which he linked to nationalism: “we are programmed biologically, instinctively, to prefer win-lose situations, us versus them.”

“This is a very old story,” he explained. “It’s as old as the Holy Land, and much older. Ever since the first people stood up on the East African savanna, ever since the first families and clans, ever since people encountered the other. It is a very old story. And it always comes down to two things – are we going to live in an us-and-them world, or a world that we live in together?”

That’s the question. Globalization and nationalism really don’t mix well, and with nationalism we all go Dutch treat. Everyone pays their own way. I keep mine. You keep yours. But that’s not what the Dutch had in mind all those years ago. With the Dutch East India Company they invented the modern world. We’re walking away from it.

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The Normalization of Buffoonery

A friend who recently visited Paris for the first time in forty years – he was just a kid back then – said he immediately felt relieved. He said it was the absence of buffoonery there. Perhaps it was the formality. One addresses others properly – Monsieur or Madame, as the case may be, no matter what their station in life. That goes for waiters too – Garçon won’t do. No one calls grown men “boys” – even Jefferson Beauregard Sessions knows that now, finally. And no one talks loudly in restaurants. Keep it private. Keep everything private. The evening’s discussion can be about food and wine, or politics or fashion, or philosophy or sex, but no one talks about how much money they make, and how they made it. That’s just not done. That’s unseemly. The room falls silent – and it’s the same for all personal details. Those can wait. Give it time – and in the meanwhile, be witty and insightful and thoughtful – no bullshit – and, above all, be courteous. Respect others. If you can’t, fake it. That’s what makes civilized life possible.

This takes some getting used to. All this is a surprise to Americans, who keep saying that the French are cold and rude. No, they’re formal, and that formality works for them. They’ve been working at this for centuries. They roll their eyes at buffoons, discretely.

Adam Gopnik was the New Yorker’s correspondent in Paris and wrote about this in Paris to the Moon – a collection of essays about settling in there – but that was seventeen years ago. He’s back in Manhattan now, but he was ruined by Paris. Live there and the culture sticks with you. Now he rolls his eyes at buffoons. Now he rolls his eyes at Donald Trump:

That’s crazy! That is the instant, intuitive, and, one might think, only possible response of a sane person to a week’s worth of tweets from President Donald Trump. Only crazy people make reckless charges, without any plausible foundation, and then simply shrug and sit on them. Take one recent example: “How low has President Obama gone to tap my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”

Gopnik knows a buffoon when he sees one:

This charge is mindboggling, not least for being self-exploding. For Obama to have wiretapped Trump – put aside that that’s not, technically speaking, what is done any longer – Obama would have needed his own private team of plumbers to break into, or hack the systems of, Trump Tower. And no one in his right mind suggests that Obama ever had such a team. The most obvious alternative would be that it was done by the FBI, in response to a court order spurred by genuine suspicion of grave wrongdoing. In that scenario, Trump would be asserting that someone in the Department of Justice had grounds for such suspicion, sufficient to convince a judge. But he couldn’t possibly have intended to say that. All this suggests that he may not be capable of the normal logic.

Maybe he’s just one more Ugly American blurting out personal nonsense, loudly, in a public place, or it could be something else:

One theory, of course, has it that this is a strategic form of crazy, a way of distracting the public from Trump’s circle’s Russian connections or the disastrous dismantling of Obamacare. But something similar happens with all the patent untruths Trump tells. Just as the media have a hard time calling crazy things crazy, we are also now reluctant to call lies, lies, even when it doesn’t seem that there’s anything else you can call them. Again, the rationale is not ridiculous: a lie is more grave than an untruth, which can be merely a mistaken conviction, and it implies conscious intention to deceive rather than inward-turning self-deception. But, really, the word “lie” isn’t an accusation when it comes to things like the Obama wiretapping; it’s a description. The alternative, of course, is to believe that extravagantly obvious untruths are sincerely held, in which case they could only be called… crazy.

Any Frenchman would step back and slip quietly from the room, but our Republicans aren’t French:

The great enablers in this business are not so much members of the media, who struggle every day between familiar practices and wild times, but the Republican representatives and senators who, by shrugging off the loony on a daily basis, do more than anyone else to make it normal. And here, perhaps, lies a link too easily overlooked. It’s not just a tribal reflex on the part of the Republicans to defend a President of the same party; it’s a necessity of the numbers. (There were three million more votes for the Democratic candidate for President and approximately six million more votes for Democrats in Senate races—yes, it was designed to be unjust, but that does not make it less unjust—and this was, of course, the second time in five elections that the Presidential candidate who won the most votes was denied the office, a previously unprecedented thing.)

As Timothy Snyder explains in his fine and frightening recent pamphlet “On Tyranny,” a minority party now has near-total power and is therefore understandably frightened of awakening the actual will of the people. Snyder writes, “The party that exercises such control proposes few policies that are popular and several that are genuinely unpopular – and thus must either fear democracy or weaken it.”

This is a toxic combination: a screw-loose leader ready to say anything, an unpopular party that wants to keep him from being exposed for what he is – even as the door swings wildly on whatever’s left of its hinges – for fear of having its policies exposed for what they are.

In short, he’s a buffoon, but he’s their buffoon. Their policies flow from that.

Matthew Yglesias notes that no one is even trying to hide that now:

At Friday’s press briefing, Sean Spicer told an absurd lie to the assembled members of the White House press corps. But he did it with a smile rather than a snarl, so everyone laughed.

The issue was the release this morning of a strong jobs report indicating continued growth in the economy, which many Republicans took the opportunity to crow about. Given the frequency with which candidate Trump had questioned the integrity of government economic data (calling them “phony numbers” and “one of the biggest hoaxes in American politics”), the question went, was President Trump confident that today’s report was accurate?

Spicer, with a wry grin on his face, said “They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.”

The buffoon had said that unemployment was running at forty-two percent – that was a fact – but now everyone is in on the joke:

Reporters laughed at the absurdity of the answer and the absurdity of the overall situation. And given the number of different things the White House is currently facing scrutiny over – from a national security adviser who was working as an agent of a foreign government to a health care plan that betrays all of Trump’s campaign promises to the bizarre assertion that White House staffers don’t need to follow government ethics rules – it’s a little hard to blame reporters for not wanting to get bogged down in an argument over some transparent BS.

That said, it’s a pretty good indicator of how much Trump has succeeded in lowering the bar in terms of standards of conduct.

He spent months routinely maligning the work of career civil servants for no good reason. And now that it’s convenient for him to accept their work, he’s going to start accepting it. But there was no apology and no admission of error – and it’s not even a big story. Just another day at the office.

Spicer pretty much admitted that his boss was a buffoon, and everyone laughed and moved on, but that other item was curious:

The White House tried to claim that federal ethics rules shouldn’t apply to its employees. The Office of Government Ethics, responsible for making sure those rules are enforced, says that’s not true.

Now Democrats on the House Oversight Committee have written the White House counsel asking for clarification on the matter. “The President’s staff needs to follow ethics rules – not flout them,” the letter read. “When they violate these rules, the President must impose discipline, not invent a legal fiction that these rules do not apply.”

In a letter last month responding to the flap over Kellyanne Conway’s promotion of first daughter Ivanka Trump’s Nordstrom merchandise, the White House said that “many” federal ethics regulations don’t apply to executive branch employees.

They’re not even trying to hide the buffoonery now:

The top White House ethics official – Deputy Council for Compliance and Ethics Stefan Passantino – defended Conway against allegations of ethical violations. Writing in response to the OGE, Passantino described the conclusions of a White House “inquiry”:

“Upon completion of our inquiry, we concluded that Ms. Conway acted inadvertently and is highly unlikely to do so again. It is noted that Ms. Conway made the statement in question in a light, off-hand manner while attempting to stand up for a person she believed had been unfairly treated and did so without nefarious motives or intent to benefit personally. Both before and after receiving your letter, I personally met with Ms. Conway and advised her that her comments regarding Ms. Trump’s products implicated the prohibition on using one’s official position to endorse a product or service. Ms. Conway has acknowledged her understanding of the Standards and has reiterated her commitment to abiding by them in the future.”

Passantino also claimed that employees of the executive office of the president aren’t bound by many federal ethics rules.

They are, but everyone moved on anyway. Don’t be French. Accept the buffoonery, and the Washington Post’s Ashley Parker reports on how far this has gone:

Attorneys for Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, informed the incoming White House legal counsel during the transition that Flynn might need to register with the government as a foreign agent – a phone call that raised no alarms within Trump’s team, despite the unusual circumstance of having a top national security post filled by someone whose work may have benefited a foreign government.

The firm Flynn headed, Flynn Intel Group, was hired last year when Flynn was an adviser to the Trump campaign by the Netherlands-based firm ­Inovo BV, which is owned by Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin. Alptekin has close ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Shortly after Trump was nominated, an agent of a foreign government was sitting in on the top secret daily intelligence briefings. They knew that. That raised no alarms within Trump’s team. That’s absurd:

The national security adviser is supposed to be an honest broker within the executive branch, pulling together military and diplomatic options for the president so he can decide what policy to pursue. But Flynn’s work potentially benefiting Turkey meant he was representing the interests of a country other than the United States at the same time he was advising Trump on foreign policy during the election.

Flynn’s firm was paid more than $500,000 for public relations and research work, including looking into exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who resides in Pennsylvania. His extradition is being sought by Turkey, which has accused him of fomenting a coup attempt last year.

Flynn wrote an op-ed on Nov. 8 for the Hill newspaper in which he called for Gulen’s extradition – a controversial diplomatic issue for the United States.

“The primary bone of contention between the U.S. and Turkey is Fethullah Gulen, a shady Islamic mullah residing in Pennsylvania whom former president Clinton once called his ‘friend’ in a well circulated video,” Flynn wrote.

“Gulen portrays himself as a moderate, but he is in fact a radical Islamist,” he wrote.

And few days later, Flynn received his final payment, for a job well done, but no alarms had been raised:

On Friday it was revealed that Flynn’s attorneys twice told Trump’s legal counsel team of his possible plans to register as a foreign agent – once in a conversation with Don McGahn, Trump’s counsel, before the inauguration and then in a conversation with another member of the White House legal team during the administration’s early days, someone with knowledge of the situation told The Washington Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

And, once again, Sean Spicer had to make this seem no big deal:

In a week when the administration is making its biggest legislative push yet, White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s Friday afternoon news conference was yet again overshadowed by unflattering reports about Flynn – with Spicer devoting precious time to defending a staffer who no longer even works for the administration.

 “The burden is on the individual to seek the legal advice or professional expertise to decide what they have to file and not,” Spicer said, parsing his explanation as to how someone who might have had to register as a foreign agent was hired as national security adviser.

“It’s not up to the transition attorney to go through someone’s livelihood and determine what they need to seek,” Spicer said. “They were given the proper legal advice at the time, which was to seek expertise in that matter.”

There was no laughter this time. No one knew what Spicer had just said, but it was the same sort of thing about the unemployment numbers:

When Flynn resigned last month, Trump defended his national security adviser as a “wonderful man” who had “been treated very, very unfairly by the media.” On Friday, it remained unclear whether Trump had changed his assessment of Flynn in light of the latest disclosures.

This is the normalization of buffoonery, as was this:

Roger Stone, President Trump’s former campaign adviser, on Friday admitted to having private conversations with a hacker who helped leak information from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) during last year’s campaign.

Stone insisted to The Washington Times that the conversations were “completely innocuous.”

“It was so perfunctory, brief and banal I had forgotten it,” Stone told The Times of a private Twitter conversation he had with a hacker known as Guccifer 2.0.

Guccifer 2.0 is believed by the U.S. intelligence community to be a cover identity for Russian intelligence operatives. The intelligence community concluded that Moscow sought to interfere in last year’s election to help Trump win.

Nothing to see here, move on:

Stone tweeted on Aug. 21, “Trust me, it will soon [be] Podesta’s time in the barrel.” Weeks later, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s hacked emails were leaked to WikiLeaks, leading many to believe Stone was aware in advance of the hack.

Stone denied any connection to the hacks at the time.

That was just a coincidence, and, with the plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, Ezra Klein notes more buffoonery:

There is a line worth noting in David Brooks’ column today: “The Republican plan will fuel cynicism. It’s being pushed through in an elitist, anti-democratic, middle of the night rush. It seems purposely designed to fail.”

Quietly, the idea that the House bill is designed to fail is percolating around Washington. I’ve heard it from a half-dozen people now. The law’s construction is shoddy. The outreach has been nonexistent. The hypocritical, hyper-accelerated process is baffling. Nothing about it makes sense.

But if you flip the intention – if you assume Republican leaders want to see a repeal-and-replace bill die in the Senate so they can say they tried and move on to tax reform – all of a sudden, it makes much more sense. It explains why more time wasn’t spent getting the bill right. It explains why they’re going so fast. It explains why they don’t care what the Congressional Budget Office says. It explains why they aren’t doing the outreach that would normally buffer them from this backlash.

The whole thing might be a kind of joke:

Why would they want their own bill to fail? Well, consider the predicament they’re in. Republicans have spent seven years promising to repeal and replace Obamacare. They won election after election atop that vow. But now that they have the power to make good, they’ve run into three problems.

First, Obamacare has become popular. Second, they don’t have an alternative plan that would make good on their promise to provide more people with more generous health care at lower cost. Third, implementing a repeal-and-replace plan – with all the complexity and disruption that entails – will drown the rest of the GOP’s agenda, and perhaps its congressional majority.

Arguably, the best outcome for Republicans is to try to replace Obamacare and fail. And if you believe that’s what they’re doing, much else falls into place.

Take the GOP effort to discredit the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis rather than working with the agency to build a better bill. For that play to work, they need credible, independent validators of their ideas. In 2009, when Democrats wanted to argue that the CBO was underestimating the savings from delivery-system reforms, they pointed to work by Harvard’s David Cutler, among others. The key to their argument was that top health experts disagreed with the CBO, and they made lengthy, plausible arguments explaining why. That’s what this looks like when you’re really trying.

The House GOP isn’t really trying.

That makes an odd kind of sense, as does this:

So far, the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, the American Nurses Association, AARP, and a host of others have come out against the bill. This is important, because every House member has doctors and nurses and hospitals in their district. It’s a decision that scares legislators rather than comforts them.

And there’s the man behind this:

Paul Ryan isn’t an amateur. He is, arguably, the most skilled policy entrepreneur of his generation. He is known for winning support from political actors and policy validators who normally reject his brand of conservatism. The backing he’s built for past proposals comes from painstaking work talking to allies, working on plans with them, preparing them for what he’ll release, hearing out their concerns, constructing processes where they feel heard, and so on. He’s good at this kind of thing. But he didn’t put in the work here. And there are consequences to that.

Imagine you’re a backbench Republican House member. You’re a conservative. You didn’t see this bill until Monday. All the think tanks you normally rely on – all the think tanks you normally agree with! – hate it. The hospitals hate it. The doctors hate it. The major conservative activist groups hate it. Your leadership appears afraid of CBO’s analysis – even though they appointed the director of the CBO! Wouldn’t this look a bit weird to you? You want to be a good soldier, of course. Paul Ryan says this is your only chance to repeal and replace Obamacare, and Obamacare is terrible. But you’ve got to be a bit antsy. How much would it take to shake you?

Let it die:

Republicans went into this process believing that failure was likely, and so tried to hedge against the consequences by putting hard boundaries around the process. They decided that if they were going to fail at this, they were going to fail fast, over the course of a month or two, not waste a year on the project.

But that decision – and the push for secrecy and mania for speed that have accompanied it – has left Republicans in an indefensible position, and with a very weak bill. In some ways, the scariest outcome for Republicans now isn’t that they fail, as expected, but that they unexpectedly succeed, and have to implement a bill no one really believes will work.

That’s too scary. The bill will fail. It now has to fail. All that buffoonery was wasted, but Paul Krugman has a few things to say about that other buffoon:

Has Ryan ever put together major legislation with any real chance of passage? Yes, he made a name for himself with big budget proposals that received adoring press coverage. But these were never remotely operational – they were filled not just with magic asterisks – tax loophole closing to be determined later, cost savings to be achieved via means to be determined later – but with elements, like converting Medicare into a voucher system, that would have drawn immense flack if they got anywhere close to actually happening.

In other words, he has never offered real plans for overhauling social insurance, just things that sound like plans but are basically just advertisements for some imaginary plan that might eventually be produced. Actually pulling together a coalition to get stuff done? Has he ever managed that?

What I’d say is that Ryan is not, in fact, a policy entrepreneur. He’s just a self-promoter, someone who has successfully sold a credulous media on a character he plays: Paul Ryan, Serious, Honest Conservative Policy Wonk. This is really his first test at real policymaking, which is a very different process. There’s nothing strange about his inability to pull off the real thing, as opposed to the act.

Be witty and insightful and thoughtful – no bullshit. Ryan is all bullshit, or something else:

Maybe this looks like amateur hour because it is. Ryan isn’t a skilled politician inexplicably losing his touch, he’s a con artist who started to believe his own con; Republicans didn’t hammer out a workable plan because there is no such plan, and anyway they have no idea what that would involve.

Or to put it another way, this could just be more malevolence tempered by incompetence.

This could also just be one more insufferable buffoon, and by the way, the friend who recently visited Paris for the first time in forty years is planning to run for Congress. We don’t need to normalize this.

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