Sessions again changes his account of what he knew about Trump campaign’s dealings with Russians

Via The Washington Post:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday again revised his account of what he knew about the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russians, acknowledging for the first time that he recalled a meeting where a foreign policy adviser mentioned having contacts who could possibly broker a meeting between then-candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladi­mir Putin.

Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, Sessions said he now remembered adviser George Papadopoulos saying in March 2016 that he knew people who might be able to help arrange a Trump-Putin meeting.

When Sessions was asked last month whether he thought surrogates from the Trump campaign had communications with the Russians, he said, “I did not, and I’m not aware of anyone else that did, and I don’t believe it happened.”

But at Tuesday’s hearing, Sessions said his memory had been refreshed.

“I do now recall the March 2016 meeting at the Trump hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said at that meeting,” Sessions told lawmakers. “After reading his account, and to the best of my recollection, I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government or any other foreign government, for that matter.”

Sessions added later: “I remember the pushback. I remember that he suggested an ability to negotiate with Russians or others, and I thought he had no ability, or it would not be appropriate for him to do so.”

The more-than-five-hour hearing marked the first time Sessions has personally addressed apparent discrepancies that have emerged in recent weeks between what he has said publicly and what other Trump advisers have claimed about their Russia-related dealings.

Papadopoulos pleaded guilty in early October to lying to the FBI, admitting he told Trump, Sessions and other campaign officials that he had contacts who could help arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin.

Separately, former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page testified before the House Intelligence Committee recently that he had told Sessions of his plans to travel to Moscow.

Democrats questioned Sessions about his dealings with both men, noting that their accounts were out of sync with what Sessions had said previously and that his account of Russia-related matters had shifted multiple times.

“I hope the attorney general can provide some clarification on this problem in his remarks today,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.).

The hearing at times grew heated, as Sessions insisted that he had “always told the truth” and bristled at the suggestion that he had ever misled legislators or the public. He said his memory had been refreshed by news accounts and asserted that he still did not recall his conversation with Page — though he added that he was “not able to dispute it.”

Page has also said the interaction was brief and forgettable, as he was not traveling to Moscow for the campaign.

“Does that establish some sort of improper contact with the Russians?” Sessions rhetorically asked Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).

The hearing was Sessions’s first appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, and it came as the attorney general found himself a key figure in several major news events.

A day earlier, the Justice Department sent a letter to committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), saying Sessions had directed senior federal prosecutors to explore whether a second special counsel should be appointed to probe a host of GOP concerns — possibly including alleged wrongdoing by the Clinton Foundation and the controversial sale of a uranium company to Russia.

More here.

There are no grounds for a special counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton

Via The Washington Post Editorial Board:

PRESIDENT TRUMP has made his position clear: He would like to see Hillary Clinton investigated. After leading chants of “Lock her up!” during his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump has moved on to tweeting his disappointment over the Justice Department’s failure to look “into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary.” These demands for the politically motivated prosecution of Mr. Trump’s former political opponent are profoundly inappropriate and degrading to democracy. The good news is that, so far, the Justice Department appears to be holding firm against the president. But as events this week show, it remains under pressure.

Twice, in July and September, Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee have requested that the Justice Department appoint a special counsel to investigate a host of matters related to Ms. Clinton and former FBI director James B. Comey. On Monday, the department notified committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) that “senior federal prosecutors” will determine whether the majority’s concerns merit an investigation by the Justice Department or an additional special counsel.

The letter raises questions about political pressure on the department — especially given Mr. Trump’s reported discontent with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recusal from the Russia investigation and failure to investigate Ms. Clinton. It’s especially worrying given the absurdity of the matters that committee Republicans would like to see addressed. The lawmakers’ first letter to Mr. Sessions requested an investigation into, variously, Mr. Trump’s evidence-free insistence that President Barack Obama wiretapped him; the debunked conspiracy theory over Ms. Clinton’s supposedly nefarious involvement in the sale of Uranium One in 2010; and Mr. Comey’s alleged leaks to New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt dating back to 1993, when Mr. Schmidt would have been in elementary school. Any credence given by the Justice Department to such a nakedly partisan attempt to kick up dust would be cause for concern.

Mr. Sessions’s appearance Tuesday before the committee should put some of those concerns to rest. Mr. Sessions pushed back against demands for a special counsel to investigate Ms. Clinton, confirming that he intends to abide by Justice Department guidelines requiring a factual basis for initiating an investigation. In this light, the letter to Mr. Goodlatte may be read less as the Justice Department’s caving to political pressure than as a polite rebuff of the House Judiciary Committee’s request.

But Mr. Sessions still should explain how his role in responding to the committee’s request is consistent with his promised recusal from any matters arising from either candidate’s 2016 presidential campaign. He says he will recuse himself later, if appropriate. But why was this matter not immediately handed to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein?

Even if the Justice Department handles this particular inappropriate request appropriately, Mr. Trump shows no intention of letting up his efforts to degrade the democratic cornerstone of independent law enforcement. The latest revelations about his son’s interactions with WikiLeaks remind us why the president might want a change of subject, but the rule of law cannot be perverted in furtherance of political distraction. Testifying before the Judiciary Committee, Mr. Sessions declared his dedication to “maintaining and strengthening the rule of law.” That commitment must remain strong no matter the provocation.

Trumpism Without Trump: A Losing Formula in Swing-State Virginia

Michael Tackett, reporting in the New York Times:

For Ed Gillespie, Trumpism was an ill-fitting suit.

His résumé was pure establishment — national Republican Party chairman, counselor to President George W. Bush, well-connected K Street lobbyist. But the messaging of his campaign for governor of Virginia was that of a cultural flamethrower, emphasizing crimes byundocumented immigrants as well as monuments to Confederate heroes — and even suggesting that his opponent, a pediatric neurologist, supported child pornographers.

As the Republican candidate, Mr. Gillespie tried to run in a very narrow lane by embracing some of the most divisive elements of President Trump’s agenda while treating him like Voldemort and mostly refusing to utter his name. It was enough to motivate Mr. Trump’s supporters in rural parts of the state, but fell far short in Northern Virginia, where the wealthy and well-educated voters who were once reliably Republican continued their march toward becoming solidly Democratic.

Lessons from off-year elections can be overdrawn, but the Virginia race strongly suggests that Republicans running in swing states will have to choose a side rather than try to straddle an uncomfortable line. Mr. Trump’s blunt force, all-or-nothing approach has worked in deeply conservative areas, but Republicans will have trouble replicating that in certain states in the midterms next year when faced with a diverse, highly educated electorate like the one in Virginia.

“We now know what a lot of us in the party already knew: The Trump message is a big loser in swing states and he hurts the G.O.P. far more than helps in those states,” Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist and critic of the president, said in an email. “Suburban voters don’t like Trump and his antics energize Democrats. The myth of Trump electoral power will now start to melt. A wildly unpopular president is a big political problem for the G.O.P. in swing states.”

Another prominent Republican aligned with conservatives called the results, including a number of legislative races, a “clear repudiation” of the party.

The outcome also showed that women were highly motivated to vote for the Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam, and other Democrats, including several female candidates running in Northern Virginia who defeated incumbent Republicans in state General Assembly races. The prominence of female candidates and the energy behind them here is something that the party will try to repeat in other states.

“I usually resist the temptation to nationalize these races in Virginia, but Trump has been an overbearing presence in this election, and Ed Gillespie chose to run a campaign modeled after the kind of campaign Trump ran last year,” said Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “This was the first big test in the Trump era of the appeal of Trump-style politics at the state level. The president injected himself in this campaign, so he owns some of it.”

Indeed, the president suggested that Mr. Gillespie’s biggest problem was not embracing him enough. “Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for,” Mr. Trump said on Twitter Tuesday night.

Democrats who were worried about low turnout and a lack of energy can breathe easier. The profile of the electorate in Virginia, where Democrats have started to dominate the counties across the Potomac from Washington, was heavily in their favor, and that advantage has been steadily growing with an influx of immigrants who were repelled by Mr. Gillespie’s message, and by a durable foundation of black voters.

Much more here.

Poll: Trump’s performance lags behind even tepid public expectations

Via The Washington Post:

A majority of Americans say President Trump has not accomplished much during his first nine months in office and they have delivered a report card that is far harsher even than the tepid expectations they set for his tenure when he was sworn into office, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News survey.

Approaching the first anniversary of his victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, Trump has an approval rating demonstrably lower than any previous chief executive at this point in his presidency over seven decades of polling. Fewer than 4 in 10 Americans — 37 percent — say they approve of the way he is handling his job.

Trump’s approval rating has changed little over the past four months, which have included tumultuous events, from hurricanes to legislative setbacks to indictments in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into the role Russia played in the 2016 campaign.

The president’s disapproval rating has reached 59 percent, with 50 percent saying they strongly disapprove of the job he is doing. While little changed since the summer, both represent the worst marks of his presidency.

He is the only president dating back to Harry S. Truman whose approval rating at this point in his presidency is net negative — by 22 points. The next worst recorded in that time was Bill Clinton, who had a net positive of 11 points by this time in his presidency.

Trump began his presidency with only modest expectations on the part of a public that was divided coming out of last year’s contentious election. Roughly 100 days into his presidency, 42 percent said he had accomplished a great deal or a good amount while in office. Today, that has declined to 35 percent.

Meanwhile, 65 percent say he has accomplished “not much” or “little or nothing.” This is up from 56 percent last spring. Forty-three percent of all Americans give him the lowest possible rating, saying he has accomplished “little or nothing.”

At the 100-day mark of Trump’s presidency last spring, Americans were split almost evenly on the question of whether he was keeping most of his major campaign promises, with 44 percent saying he was and 41 percent disagreeing. Today the verdict is more severe, with a majority (55 percent) saying he is not keeping most of those promises.

The public sees Democrats acting mostly as an opposition party, rather than offering ideas of their own. Asked whether the Democratic Party is presenting alternatives to Trump’s proposals or mainly criticizing the president, 61 percent said mainly criticizing, identical to the percentage who said this of Republican Party leaders one year after Obama’s election. Only a plurality of Democrats (47 percent) say their leaders are offering alternatives to Trump’s ideas.

Trump’s actions and behavior have drawn sharp criticism from a few members of his own party, most recently from Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona. Former president George W. Bush delivered a recent speech that, while never mentioning Trump by name, was seen as a rebuke of the way the president is conducting himself in office.

The Post-ABC News poll asked self-identified Republicans and independents who lean toward the GOP whether they believed their party leaders should speak out when they disagree with the president. Overall, 71 percent said they should, with just 27 percent saying those leaders should avoid criticizing him, including 65 percent of Trump voters who say Republicans should air their disagreements.

More here.

Upstairs at home, with the TV on, Trump fumes over Russia indictments

Via The Washington Post:

President Trump woke before dawn on Monday and burrowed in at the White House residence to wait for the Russia bombshell he knew was coming.

Separated from most of his West Wing staff — who fretted over why he was late getting to the Oval Office — Trump clicked on the television and spent the morning playing fuming media critic, legal analyst and crisis communications strategist, according to several people close to him.

The president digested the news of the first indictments in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe with exasperation and disgust, these people said. He called his lawyers repeatedly. He listened intently to cable news commentary. And, with rising irritation, he watched live footage of his onetime campaign adviser and confidant, Paul Manafort, turning himself in to the FBI.

Initially, Trump felt vindicated. Though frustrated that the media were linking him to the indictment and tarnishing his presidency, he cheered that the ­charges against Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, were focused primarily on activities that began before his campaign. Trump tweeted at 10:28 a.m., “there is NO COLLUSION!”

But the president’s celebration was short-lived. A few minutes later, court documents were unsealed showing that George Papadopoulos, an unpaid foreign policy adviser on Trump’s campaign, pleaded guilty to making a false statement to the FBI about his efforts to broker a relationship between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The case provides the clearest evidence yet of links between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials.

For a president who revels in chaos — and in orchestrating it himself — Monday brought a political storm that Trump could not control. White House chief of staff John F. Kelly, along with lawyers Ty Cobb, John Dowd and Jay Sekulow, advised Trump to be cautious with his public responses, but they were a private sounding board for his grievances, advisers said.

“This has not been a cause of great agita or angst or activity at the White House,” said Cobb, the White House lawyer overseeing Russia matters. He added that Trump is “spending all of his time on presidential work.”

But Trump’s anger Monday was visible to those who interacted with him, and the mood in the corridors of the White House was one of weariness and fear of the unknown. As the president groused upstairs, many staffers — some of whom have hired lawyers to help them navigate Mueller’s investigation — privately speculated about where the special counsel might turn next.

“The walls are closing in,” said one senior Republican in close contact with top staffers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “Everyone is freaking out.”

Trump is also increasingly agitated by the expansion of Mueller’s probe into financial issues beyond the 2016 campaign and about the potential damage to him and his family.

This portrait of Trump and his White House on a day of crisis is based on interviews with 20 senior administration officials, Trump friends and key outside allies, many of whom insisted on anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters.

Trump and his aides were frustrated that, yet again, Russia steamrolled the start of a carefully planned week of policy news. Trump is preparing to nominate a new chairman of the Federal Reserve and is scheduled to depart Friday for a high-stakes, 12-day trip across Asia, and House Republicans are planning to unveil their tax overhaul bill.

“I’d like to start the briefing today by addressing a topic that I know all of you are preparing to ask me about, and that’s tax reform,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at Monday afternoon’s news briefing. It was a lighthearted prelude to a question-and-answer session immediately overtaken by queries about the indictments.

Away from the podium, Trump staffers fretted privately over whether Manafort or Gates might share with Mueller’s team damaging information about other colleagues. They expressed concern in particular about Gates because he has a young family, may be more stretched financially than Manafort, and continued to be involved in Trump’s political operation and had access to the White House, including attending West Wing meetings after Trump was sworn in.

Some White House advisers are unhappy with Thomas J. Barrack Jr., Trump’s longtime friend and chair of his inauguration, whom they hold responsible for keeping Gates in the Trump orbit long after Manafort resigned as campaign chairman in August 2016, according to people familiar with the situation. Barrack has been Gates’s patron of late, steering political work to him and, until Monday, employing him as director of the Washington office of his real estate investment company.

Trump and his aides tried to shrug off the ominous headlines, decorating the South Portico of the White House in black bats and faux spider webs to welcome costumed children for Halloween trick-or-treating. As the sun set on Monday, the president and first lady Melania Trump handed out goody bags to little princesses and pirates.

More here.

Let’s not staff a White House with generals ever again

Jennifer Rubin, reporting for the Washington Post:

In defending his boss, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly gratuitously attacked Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), derisively referred to her as being like “empty barrels,” misrepresented her conduct at a dedication of an FBI building and, even when film of the event showed his characterization to be utterly false, did not apologize. Kelly deemed it appropriate to restrict questions to reporterswith a connection to a Gold Star family, as if one group of Americans (and their readers and viewers) is more worthy than another. However, when White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders warned reporters not to criticize Kelly (or his slander of Wilson), the administration took on the creepy aura of a military junta.

The Post reported:

Instead of backing down, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders piled on Friday and said Kelly was justified in accusing the lawmaker of grandstanding, despite erring on the facts. “As we say in the South: all hat, no cattle,” Sanders said of Wilson, an African American who is known for wearing brightly colored cowboy hats.

Sanders also attempted to shift the debate away from Kelly’s inaccuracies to instead focus on his personal integrity.

“If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate,” she said.

No one in service of our country is beyond reproach or immune from criticism. Generals get criticized and every day must answer to politicians, who in turn are responsible to the public. (Trump, by the way, routinely demeaned generals — whom he claimed had been “reduced to rubble” — in the presidential campaign.) We don’t believe in the divine right of kings or the infallibility of military or civilian leaders. And Kelly, now in a civilian role, certainly should not be permitted to deploy his military service record, no matter how admirable that may have been, to deflect criticism and shut up the press.

Kelly and Trump seem to actually have a lot in common. They both display disdain for the press and contempt for critics. Kelly rails at treatment of (“sacred”) women but enthusiastically serves a president who serially insults and abuses women. Rather than address criticism, Kelly and Trump both like to pull rank, treat critics as their lessers and react indignantly when anyone questions their motives.

CNN’s Jake Tapper had it exactly right in his appearance Friday afternoon. “When a reporter pointed out just minutes ago that Kelly had gotten his facts wrong about this speech, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said one of the most shocking things I’ve ever heard from that podium — she suggested that journalists cannot question generals,” he said. “That’s not how we do it here in the United States.” But then, Trump has made destruction of democratic values and institutions a feature of his presidency.

The press puts out “fake” news. The special prosecutor is on a witch hunt. The courts have no power to second-guess the president on the travel ban. It’s all part of Trump’s imperiousness and determination to delegitimize all independent sources of information and criticism. Kelly, rather than restrain these authoritarian impulses, fuels them.

Conventional wisdom has been telling us that Kelly has created a more disciplined and effective White House. He’s supposed to be taking his shifts for supervision of an erratic, irrational president. I don’t see it.

Since Kelly’s arrival, Trump has ignited explosive cultural confrontations, failed again to repeal Obamacare and looked thoroughly hapless in his inability to articulate or stick to any position for more than an hour or so. Trump blusters and threatens North Korea; he alarms European allies by threatening to trash the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Trump under Kelly’s “day care” still has not filled a slew of top-level posts. Trump is not becoming more competent, more focused, more civil or more respectful of others under Kelly’s tutelage. In fact, he’s getting worse on all four counts. Kelly’s eagerness to defend the president’s unconscionable behavior and Kelly’s own lack of respect for civilian politicians simply feed Trump’s demons.

Kelly should be replaced by someone who actually understands democratic governance and can deliver bad news and honest criticism to the president. Going forward, Congress needs to stomp out creeping military authoritarianism. Congress should start by barring generals from acting in civilian capacities in the White House.

McCain condemns ‘half-baked, spurious nationalism’ in clear shot at President Trump

Paul Kane, reporting for The Washington Post:

An emotional Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) launched a thinly veiled critique of President Trump’s global stewardship Monday night, using a notable award ceremony to condemn “people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.”

McCain said that “some half-baked, spurious nationalism” should be considered “as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”

The 2008 Republican presidential nominee spoke with Independence Hall in his line of sight, having just been awarded the Liberty Medal by the National Constitution Center, a nonpartisan institution built across the street from the spot where the Founding Fathers debated the nation’s future.

The award was presented by Joe Biden, the former vice president who served 22 years in the Senate with McCain. Biden is now chairman of the Constitution Center.

In his remarks, Biden paid tribute to McCain’s commitment as a captured Navy pilot refusing early release from his Vietnamese captors, to his bipartisan work in the Senate. Biden ended on a deeply personal note discussing his late son Beau’s admiration for McCain when Beau Biden went to Iraq on a tour of duty with the Army as a judge advocate general in 2008.

Beau Biden died of glioblastoma in 2015, the same form of brain cancer that McCain was diagnosed with in July.

McCain grew emotional at times during his remarks, recounting the 1991 speech of President George H.W. Bush on the 55h anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks. Bush is one of 29 recipients of the Liberty Medal. Last year the center honored Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).

When it came to the portion of his speech about America’s place in the world, McCain gathered himself and delivered a blunt denunciation of the nationalist forces around the world, but most particularly of those at home:

To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain “the last best hope of Earth” for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.

We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil.  We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.

Trump is distracting us to death

Kathleen Parker, reporting for the Washington Post:

When President Trump said a few days ago that now isn’t the time for a debate about gun control, presumably he meant that we should respect a decent interval of time for mourning after the Las Vegas shooting before launching into a political discussion that historically has led nowhere.

If that’s how he felt, it would have been easy enough (and sane) to say. But he didn’t.

More likely, Trump doesn’t want any distraction from (a) his brilliant PR idea to toss paper-towel rolls to thirsty, hurricane-sogged Puerto Ricans (cake to follow); (b) his photo-op Thursday evening with leaders of the armed forces and their spouses during which he teased the “fake news” media he had summoned that the dinner gathering with military brass could be “the calm before the storm.”

What storm, Mr. President?” an intrepid reporter queried.

“You’ll find out.”

Whoa. Mr. Mystery Man has our attention now. Oh, so clever. Are we going to war? Will it be with the Islamic State? North Korea? Iran? Just you wait, fake newsies, just you wait.

Or perhaps he wants to keep the spotlight on (c) his suggestion that the Senate Intelligence Committee investigate the media, without which his military charade would have merely been the world’s widest-angle selfie.

No, actually, his absurd (unconstitutional) suggestion was, probably, a smokescreen itself, as was the paper-towel toss, one hopes (surely no one’s mind is that inert), and the photo-op. Trump has mastered the Art of Distraction, lately to keep our eyes off the firefight within the White House and the ever-obvious fact this administration is staring at an eclipse without glasses and this president couldn’t lead a starving dog to a tenderloin buffet.

The revolving door at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is like Saks at Christmastime. Latest to the lineup is Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Others have included FBI Director James B. Comey, chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, press secretary Sean Spicer, and national security adviser Michael Flynn, to name a few.

Next up, most likely, is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, not only because the president routinely undermines and contradicts the nation’s top diplomat but also because Tillerson clearly holds Trump in contempt. Most important, Tillerson recently told the truth.

Trump reportedly was furious upon returning from his diplomatic coup in Puerto Rico, which he seemed to have thought was a Spanish colony, only to see the face of his secretary of state on all his favorite TV channels.

According to NBC News, Tillerson had said the president is a “moron,” which caused most sentient humans to shrug and roll their eyes as if to say, “No, really?” But this slight probably bothered Trump less than the fact that Tillerson’s face, and not his, was on all the cable shows.

Trump’s fan base, of course, was unfazed by Tillerson’s reported insult, knowing that this term could not possibly apply to a president who recently had scolded Puerto Ricans for messing up the U.S. budget and implied that they were a shiftless lot who “want everything to be done for them.” No, siree. That person would be a genius.

As Americans gnaw their nails wondering which war this way comes — or when Tillerson will be replaced — Trump is focused on decertifying the nuclear deal with Iran, continuing to taunt North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and trying to convince the rest of the world that he’s got everything under control.

Thus, the very last thing Trump needs right now is a political shootout over guns.

Now’s not the time, he says. Apparently, however, many if not most Americans — about 90 percent of whom would support expanding background checks — beg to differ. If not now, when?

The pessimist notes that if the murder of 20 6- and 7-year-olds at Sandy Hook Elementary School resulted in no sensible restrictions on gun ownership, then the slaughter of 58 country music fans isn’t likely to, either. But wait, we have a headline: Even the National Rifle Association has called for regulating (not banning or confiscating) “bump stocks” — the attachment used by the Las Vegas shooter to essentially convert a semiautomatic into an automatic weapon, the better to kill the most people. And Republicans are expressing awillingness to consider restrictions.

You’d think by the reactions — this is really, really huge, editorialists have clamored — that the NRA decided to support banning from private ownership all semiautomatic weapons, which were created solely for the purpose of killing human beings. But no. Like Coco Chanel, who always removed one bauble before leaving home, the NRA is offering to eliminate one accessory from a warehouse of gaudy, bloodletting fashions.

Talk about distractions. Or was this the artifice of a deal?

Do I even know you anymore?

Joe Scarborough, reporting for the Washington Post:

Who are you? I’ve got to say that I really don’t know anymore. It’s kind of a strange turn of events since we went to the same public schools across the Deep South, then attended the same state colleges, cheering wildly on Saturdays for our favorite SEC teams, and spent Sunday mornings together in the same Southern Baptist pews. We even went to Training Union on Sunday nights.

Remember how our conversations always seemed to turn to politics? How we criticized Bill Clinton for playing so fast and loose with the truth? And how shamefully Democrats turned a blind eye to his fabrications and outright lies? Man, how could those Democrats sleep at night?

And what about how the guy we voted for, George W. Bush, running up the federal debt and launching ill-planned foreign adventures overseas? We swore that the next time Republicans got in power, we would pressure them to cut spending, attack the debt and put America’s foreign policy on a restrained and reasonable path. After Bush, we grew enraged by President Barack Obama’s efforts to reorder one-sixth of our economy on a straight party-line health-care vote. How reckless was that!

You and I always agreed that Washington Democrats and Republicans were cut from the same cloth, and that we needed to keep both sides honest. We were united by the shared belief that politicians must put country above party, right?

Right?

What happened to you?

The guys I came up with in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and northwest Florida for more than 40 years would never boo a former American prisoner of war — especially one who refused to return home until the enemy released every one of his buddies in the prison camp. Southern guys like us loved that “leave no man behind” ethos when John Wayne or Sylvester Stallone exhibited it on movie screens. So why would you even think of booing a man, now fighting for his life, who showed that true grit in real life?

But boo Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) you did, at the behest of President Trump during a rally in Alabama last week.

Mike Allen of Axios further reported this week that Trump has been “physically mocking” the thumbs-down gesture McCain used to deliver the deciding vote against the Republican health-care bill in July. Did that mocking involve an imitation of McCain’s stiff arm movements? In case you haven’t read a newspaper in the 45 years since we played on the same Dixie Youth Baseball team together, McCain got the hell beaten out of him by the communists who held him in the Hanoi Hilton for more than five years.

At that same time, Trump was dodging the draft by claiming that bone spurs stopped him from serving his country in uniform. And yet this crippling condition didn’t stop the spoiled Ivy League student from playing football, tennis and golf. After four draft deferments, Trump graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968 on the same day 40 U.S. servicemen were killed in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, McCain continued receiving the beatings that would forever leave him incapable of lifting his arms over his head. He kept enduring torture because he refused to leave his band of brothers behind.

Do you have that kind of character? If you booed McCain at last week’s rally, don’t bother answering. Someone has obviously failed you in your life; you probably need to spend some time figuring out who that was. And if you still go to church, you may also want to pray for all those around you who put tribal politics ahead of basic humanity.

Then maybe you should drive home and tell your children the story of John McCain’s sacrifice. If you can teach your children that lesson of heroism, there’s a chance they might grow up to have more character than the president you now praise.

And perhaps there just may be hope for our country.

Alabama defeat leaves Trump weakened, isolated amid mounting challenges

Robert Costa, reporting for the Washington Post:

As he headed to Huntsville, Ala., in a last-ditch effort to lift the floundering campaign of Sen. Luther Strange, President Trump was fuming — feeling dragged along by GOP senators who had pleaded with him to go and increasingly unenthusiastic about Strange, whom he described to aides as loyal but “low energy.”

His agitation only worsened on the flight back last Friday. Trump bemoaned the headlines he expected to see once Strange was defeated — that he had stumbled and lost his grip on “my people,” as he calls his core voters. He also lamented the rally crowd’s tepid response to the 6-foot-9 incumbent he liked to call “Big Luther.”

“Trump was never fully behind Strange to begin with,” former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said Wednesday after Strange was trounced in Tuesday’s GOP primary in Alabama. “But the party coaxed and cajoled him to get on the Strange train, and he did.”

For Trump, the trip to Alabama marked the dispiriting start to one of the lowest and perhaps most damaging stretches of his already troubled presidency, leaving him further weakened and isolated with few ways out of the thicket of challenges he faces, according to a half-dozen people close to him interviewed on Wednesday.

His political vitality within his party — counted upon by Republicans who fear primary challenges in next year’s midterm elections — suddenly stands in question, as neither his vocal campaigning nor millions of dollars from the Republican establishment could save Strange from defeat by insurgent challenger Roy Moore.

Trump’s legislative agenda lies in tatters, as Senate Republicans failed again this week to rally around legislation that would gut former president Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. He is also increasingly under siege by members of both parties for his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, which has left Puerto Rico devastated and begging for help from Washington.

By Wednesday, the downtrodden president tried to start anew by unveiling a tax plan at an event in Indiana — a proposal immediately met with withering attacks from the left as a deficit-busting giveaway to the rich and from the right as not aggressive enough in slashing tax rates. The Drudge Report, influential among conservatives, dubbed it “more betrayal.”

Trump also waded back into the health-care debate, falsely stating that the Republican legislation was held up by a hospitalized senator.

“We have the votes for health care. We have one senator that’s in the hospital. He can’t vote because he’s in the hospital,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday — an apparent reference to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who turns 80 in December and has dealt with various health problems.

Cochran responded with a corrective tweet: “Thanks for the well-wishes. I’m not hospitalized, but am recuperating at home in Mississippi and look forward to returning to work soon.”

Trump’s loose, confident talk extended elsewhere on Wednesday. In Indiana, the president was full of bravado as he made his tax pitch — and if there was lingering frustration with Strange, he did not show it.

“These tax cuts are significant,” Trump said at the state fairgrounds. “There’s never been tax cuts like what we’re talking about.”

But Trump’s critics did not buy the president’s assurance and said the tax speech could not paper over his problems.

“In Alabama and with so many things, Trump has helped to light a fire he can’t control, and there’s no sign he knows how to get out of this situation,” said Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who worked in George W. Bush’s White House. “It’s going to cause him to lash out more rather than less as he starts to feel like the walls are closing in.”

Several of Trump’s longtime friends and associates said he is doing what he always does in times of trouble: attempt to overwhelm with liveliness. But they acknowledged that Trump may not be enjoying the experience.

“I’m told he’s unhappy,” said veteran Republican consultant Roger Stone. “He’s surrounded by people who don’t understand politics and don’t understand why he won the presidency. Instead of sending a message in Alabama to get behind his policies, they sadly lost the opportunity.”

Said former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg, “The president will think about what happened in Alabama and remember everybody who told him to go all in. If you sent him polls from the [U.S.] Chamber of Commerce or the Senate Leadership Fund, the next polls you send will go in his trash can.”

Together, those groups, along with other mainstream GOP organizations, spent more than $10 million to boost Strange.

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, stewed over their own fates, anxious that Moore, a former state Supreme Court judge, would become a national burden for the party because of the long list of incendiary comments he has made on race, religion and sexuality.

Hushed talk of retirements dominated conversations on Capitol Hill, one day after Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) announced that he would not seek reelection in 2018, with Republican lawmakers wondering whether they could survive a GOP political storm that only seems to be growing.

Former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who backed Moore and introduced him at his victory party, encouraged conservative outsiders in Mississippi and other states to move closer to launching Senate bids, one person close to him said.

“There’s a big lesson here: Stick to the program,” Bannon said Wednesday on Breitbart News’s Sirius XM radio show. “There’s a lesson, stick to the program, your base will be there, and you’ll grow your base.”

Steele, however, said Strange’s defeat did not mean Trump had lost his political sway with Republican base voters.

“Voters in Alabama knew the whole endorsement for Strange was a wink and a nod. They got that Moore was a Trump guy,” Steele said. “So did he endorse the candidate who lost? Yes. But the reality is more nuanced than ‘Trump lost in Alabama.’ He lost, but his voters know why and still love him.”

In the West Wing, there was relative calm as officials plowed forward, hoping to leave behind the dramas of Alabama and Trump’s campaign against NFL players protesting police brutality during the national anthem. They agreed with Steele that while the GOP was fractured, Trump’s coalition remained.

“He knew what was coming in Alabama on Friday,” said one person close to Trump. “He knew how McConnell had become an issue there — and he said as much over dinner on Monday.” That evening, Trump had met with a group of prominent conservative leaders at the White House.

The person added, “What he wants to do is get back to taxes, make sure the Senate gets that done as soon as possible.”

Aides said that Trump knew that those who privately supported his endorsement of Strange, such as White House chief of staff John F. Kelly, were doing so because Trump at first was eager to do so and saw a chance to patch up relationships in Congress.

Trump was defensive in his remarks about the race to reporters on Wednesday, a few hours after he deleted a series of pro-Strange tweets. He also characterized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as a drag on Strange.

“I have to say, Luther came a long way from the time I endorsed him, and he ran a good race, but Roy ran a really great race,” Trump said, adding that Moore’s campaign used McConnell as a weapon against Strange.

The atmosphere of uncertainty and recriminations following the Alabama race prompted Republicans, even those close to Trump, to feel urgency to pass something — anything — that could somehow stabilize the party.

“If there was ever a time when Republicans feel pressure to perform, it’s now,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus. “If big things don’t get done by Thanksgiving, there really won’t be enough spin to say Republicans here have done anything but fail.”

Immigration’s Sudden Re-Emergence Scrambles Republican Agenda

Jeremy W. Peters, writing for the New York Times:

Republican leaders had muscled through their failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, punted on the perennial brinkmanship over the debt ceiling and finally reached the one issue that all of the party’s factions wanted to be on, tax reform.

Then, over a Chinese dinner at the White House with the two top Democrats on Capitol Hill, President Trump threw that momentary sense of satisfaction into disarray, forcing Republicans to confront the subject that packs more emotional and political force than anything they had on their busy agenda: immigration.

Virtually nothing can drive Republicans more bitterly apart than immigration policy, which has vexed the party ever since President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Republican leaders were scorched by the issue when President George W. Bush pushed it in his second term. The divisions re-emerged when President Barack Obama took it back up.

And now it re-enters the political bloodstream just when the party was desperate to demonstrate its ability to deliver on other complicated issues before lawmakers face voters next year, like lowering corporate and individual tax rates and revitalizing the nation’s infrastructure.

Mr. Trump’s tentative agreement on Wednesday with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California to move forward on legislation to protect the legal status of young, undocumented immigrants and to delay, for now, a fight over the president’s promised border wall triggered anger and bewilderment on the right.

From talk radio studios to the halls of the Capitol, conservatives across the ideological spectrum seemed caught off guard by the president’s move, unsure what exactly he had agreed to, if anything at all.

“No one knows what the deal is,” said Representative Mo Brooks, Republican of Alabama, who expressed wariness about the agreement and spared no one in his criticism. “I am frustrated with all of Washington, and I make no exception.”

On Twitter, the conservative firebrand Ann Coulter was more blunt: “At this point, who DOESN’T want Trump impeached?” Breitbart News gave the president a belittling nickname of his own: Amnesty Don.

Mr. Trump insisted at the White House on Thursday, “We’re not talking about amnesty at all,” and he tried to reassure rattled supporters that there would still be a wall. “The wall will happen.”

Much more here.

The Daily 202: Trump’s DACA ‘deal’ is another humiliation for Jeff Sessions

James Hohmman, writing for the Washington Post:

THE BIG IDEA: Photographers caught a giddy Jeff Sessions cracking a satisfied smile last week as he prepared to announce that 690,000 undocumented immigrants who had been brought into the United States as minors would no longer be shielded from deportation.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program “is being rescinded,” the attorney general declared in the first line of his statement. “There is nothing compassionate about the failure to enforce immigration laws. … Failure to enforce the laws in the past has put our nation at risk of crime, violence and even terrorism. … The effect of this unilateral executive amnesty, among other things, contributed to a surge of unaccompanied minors on the southern border that yielded terrible humanitarian consequences. It also denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens.”

Fact checkers called these and other claims Sessions made about the immigrants known as “dreamers” dubious or outright false. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t take questions afterward. Regardless, the speech was widely covered as a triumph for the nation’s chief law enforcement officer and a sign that he was out of President Trump’s doghouse. Not only did Sessions get the outcome he wanted; he also got to deliver the news from the Justice Department briefing room.

Trump’s DACA decision last week seemed to validate Sessions’s decision to slog on through the summer even after being frozen out of the inner circle. From interviews to tweets, Trump repeatedly attacked his attorney general throughout July as “weak” and “beleaguered.”

The main reason Sessions chose to put up with indignities that might cause most people to quit was because he believed he could make a difference on immigration policy. That has always been his signature issue and animated his two decades in the Senate.

Much more here.

Trump’s diehard supporters are fuming after an apparent about-face on ‘dreamers’

Robert Costa, reporting for the Washington Post:

Staunch conservative allies of President Trump erupted in anger and incredulity late Wednesday after Democrats announced the president had agreed to pursue a legislative deal that would protect thousands of young undocumented immigrants from deportation but not secure Trump’s signature campaign promise: building a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

As midnight neared, thousands of social media accounts came alive as elected officials and activists on the right dashed off tweets and posts to share their shock.

And in between those posts, there was a flurry of fuming calls and text messages — a blaring political fire alarm among Trump’s diehard supporters.

“The reality is sinking in that Trump administration is on the precipice of turning into an establishment presidency,” Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign adviser, said in an interview early Thursday morning.

While the initial wave of fury could change direction as new details emerge, the torrent represented the first major break of Trump’s devoted base from the president on a core issue.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), one of the GOP’s biggest immigration hawks, issued a dramatic warning to the president after he scrolled through news reports.

“If AP is correct, Trump base is blown up, destroyed, irreparable, and disillusioned beyond repair,” King tweeted, referencing an Associated Press story on the bipartisan agreement.

He added, “No promise is credible.”

Conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham, who is friendly with Trump, mocked him for seeming to shelve the pledge that has animated his supporters since his campaign’s launch.

“Exactly what @realDonaldTrump campaigned on. Not,” Ingraham wrote on Twitter. She later added, “BUILD THE WALL! BUILD THE WALL! … or … maybe … not really.”

Trump tried to ease the GOP backlash early Thursday in a series of tweets that insisted the border wall “will continue to be built” and that no deal was hashed out with Democrats on the so-called undocumented “dreamers.”

“No deal was made last night on DACA. Massive border security would have to be agreed to in exchange for consent. Would be subject to vote,” Trump wrote, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an Obama-era program that has allowed 690,000 dreamers to work and go to school without fear of deportation.

Breitbart News, the conservative website now run by former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, quickly became a gathering place for aggrieved Trump backers. Readers congregated by the thousands in the comments section for an article with a bright red headline: “Amnesty Don.”

Days earlier, Bannon said on CBS’s “60 Minutes” that he was “worried about losing the House now because of this, because of DACA,” arguing that Republican voters would lack enthusiasm for Trump and the party if they felt it was drifting to the center on immigration.

“If this goes all the way down to its logical conclusion, in February and March it will be a civil war inside the Republican Party that will be every bit as vitriolic as 2013,” Bannon said, referencing the stalled fight that year over a comprehensive immigration bill. “And to me, doing that in the springboard of primary season for 2018 is extremely unwise.”

“This a betrayal of the highest order,” a Breitbart editor, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said in a phone call late Wednesday. “Donald Trump should be ashamed of himself. He wasn’t elected to do this.”

The editor was mostly echoed by the site’s readers:

“Put a fork in Trump. He is done.”

“PRIMARY TIME!!!!”

“What a HUGE let down.”

“I can reconcile Trump caving on virtually any issue, Amnesty and not building the wall are not one of them.”

Adding to the tumult in the deep of night: conflicting accounts over what exactly Trump and Democrats had brokered.

Aides to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) insisted that Trump had agreed not to request wall funding as part of their pact to soon move legislation to help undocumented immigrants who are protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an executive order established by President Obama in June 2012.

Much more here.