The man-child in the White House reels wildly out of control

Eugene Robinson, reporting for The Washington Post:

The rude, petulant man-child in the Oval Office is reeling ever more wildly out of control, and those who cynically or slavishly pretend otherwise are doing a grave disservice to the nation — and to themselves.

How do you like him now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell? President Trump convened a made-for-television summit at the White House and said he’d sign any immigration bill Congress passed. “I’ll take the heat,” he boasted. So a bipartisan group of senators came up with a deal — and he rejected it out of hand, launching into an unhinged rant about “shithole countries.”

What about you, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan? You came up with a clever way to get Democrats to agree to a stopgap funding bill, dangling the possibility of a long-term renewal of the vital Children’s Health Insurance Program. But the president tweeted that “CHIP should be part of a long term solution” and not a short-term measure to keep the government from shutting down.

Is this what you signed up for, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly? In a meeting with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, you saidthat some of Trump’s campaign positions on immigration were “uninformed” and that there will never be a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. You reportedly added that whatever partial barrier gets built, Mexico won’t pay for it. But the president slapped you down with another series of tweets, claiming that his promised wall “has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it” — and that Mexico will, too, pay for the wall, “directly or indirectly.”

How was your week, White House physician Ronny Jackson? You did what is expected of everyone who stands at the lectern in the briefing room: lavish the president with flowery, over-the-top, Dear Leader praise. He is in “excellent health,” you announced. But the test results you released, according to many other doctors, indicate that Trump suffers from moderate heart disease and is on the borderline between overweight and obese.

Having fun, Stephen K. Bannon and Corey Lewandowski? As bigwigs in the Trump campaign, you helped a manifestly unfit blowhard get elected president. This week, you did the White House a favor by stonewalling the House Intelligence Committee in a way that angered even the Republicans on the panel, which is hard to do. But you remain in the crosshairs of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, and the best-case scenario is that you emerge unindicted but saddled with mountainous legal bills.

No one should feel sorry for those who choose to aid and abet this travesty of an administration. They made their choices. They elected to trust a man they know to be wholly untrustworthy, and to lie shamelessly to massage his swollen ego. At this point, I wouldn’t believe Sarah Huckabee Sanders if she told me that water is wet and the sky is blue.

But the larger impact is something we all must worry about: One year into the Trump presidency, we effectively do not have a presidency at all.

As McConnell noted in frustration Wednesday, he can’t orchestrate passage of an immigration bill unless he knows what Trump is willing to sign. Likewise, Ryan can’t pass spending legislation unless he knows what Trump will and will not accept. But the president has no fixed positions. His word is completely unreliable. How are congressional leaders supposed to do their jobs?

Regarding foreign policy, how can other nations take seriously anything Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says when he is subject to being countermanded on Twitter at any moment? What is the point of Jared Kushner’s diplomacy, if you can call it that, in the Middle East? Does “America first” really mean anything, or is it just Trumpian hot air?

And why, at this point, do reporters even bother to attend Sanders’s briefings, unless perhaps for the entertainment value? Past press secretaries all delivered pronouncements that were loaded with spin, but Sanders concocts laughable fantasies out of thin air — usually to “justify” crazy things Trump has said or tweeted.

The nation has never faced a situation like this: It is unwise to take literally or seriously anything the president and his official spokesmen say. An administration with no credibility cannot possibly lead.

Trump is incapable of growing into the job; if anything, he is becoming more erratic. I fear the day when a crisis arises and we must face it with a bratty preteen at the helm.

Mr. President, stop attacking the press

John McCain, writing in the Washington Post:

After leaving office, President Ronald Reagan created the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award to recognize individuals who have fought to spread liberty worldwide. Nancy Reagan continued the tradition after her husband’s death, and in 2008 she bestowed the honor on human rights icon Natan Sharansky, who credited Reagan’s strong defense of freedom for his own survival in Soviet gulags. Reagan recognized that as leader of the free world, his words carried enormous weight, and he used them to inspire the unprecedented spread of democracy around the world.

President Trump does not seem to understand that his rhetoric and actions reverberate in the same way. He has threatened to continue his attempt to discredit the free press by bestowing “fake news awards” upon reporters and news outlets whose coverage he disagrees with. Whether Trump knows it or not, these efforts are being closely watched by foreign leaders who are already using his words as cover as they silence and shutter one of the key pillars of democracy.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 2017 was one of the most dangerous years to be a journalist. Last year, the organization documented 262 cases of journalists being imprisoned for their work. Reporters around the world face intimidation, threats of violence, harassment, persecution and sometimes even death as governments resort to brutal censorship to silence the truth.

The committee’s report revealed a bleak global climate for press freedom, as more governments seek to control access to information and limit freedom of opinion and expression. They do this not only by arresting journalists but also by fostering distrust of media coverage and accusing reporters of undermining national security and pride. Governments dub the press the “enemy of the people,” weaken or eliminate their independence, and exploit the lack of serious scrutiny to encroach on individual liberties and freedoms.

This assault on journalism and free speech proceeds apace in places such as RussiaTurkeyChina, Egypt, Venezuela and many others. Yet even more troubling is the growing number of attacks on press freedom in traditionally free and open societies, where censorship in the name of national security is becoming more common. Britain passed a surveillance law that experts warn chills free speech, and countries from France to Germany are looking to do the same. In Malta, a prominent journalist was brutally murdered in October after uncovering systemic government corruption. In Poland, an independent news outlet was fined (later rescinded) nearly half a million dollars for broadcasting images of an anti-government protest.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s attitude toward such behavior has been inconsistent at best and hypocritical at worst. While administration officials often condemn violence against reporters abroad, Trump continues his unrelenting attacks on the integrity of American journalists and news outlets. This has provided cover for repressive regimes to follow suit. The phrase “fake news” — granted legitimacy by an American president — is being used by autocrats to silence reporters, undermine political opponents, stave off media scrutiny and mislead citizens. CPJ documented 21 cases in 2017 in which journalists were jailed on “fake news” charges.

Trump’s attempts to undermine the free press also make it more difficult to hold repressive governments accountable. For decades, dissidents and human rights advocates have relied on independent investigations into government corruption to further their fight for freedom. But constant cries of “fake news” undercut this type of reporting and strip activists of one of their most powerful tools of dissent.

We cannot afford to abdicate America’s long-standing role as the defender of human rights and democratic principles throughout the world. Without strong leadership in the White House, Congress must commit to protecting independent journalism, preserving an open and free media environment, and defending the fundamental right to freedom of opinion and expression.

We can do this by encouraging our partners and allies to review their laws and practices, including the abuse of defamation and anti-terrorism laws, to better protect press freedom and ensure that they do not unduly shrink the space for free speech. We can authorize U.S. foreign assistance to support independent media outlets and programs that create greater media pluralism. We can do more to foster conditions in which freedom of expression and information can thrive, including working to change increasingly political attitudes toward journalism. And we can condemn violence against journalists, denounce censorship and support dissidents and activists as they seek to speak the truth.

Ultimately, freedom of information is critical for a democracy to succeed. We become better, stronger and more effective societies by having an informed and engaged public that pushes policymakers to best represent not only our interests but also our values. Journalists play a major role in the promotion and protection of democracy and our unalienable rights, and they must be able to do their jobs freely. Only truth and transparency can guarantee freedom.

In Alabama, a lousy night for Republicans and a resounding defeat for Trump

Dan Balz. writing in the Washington Post:

Tuesday’s special U.S. Senate election in Alabama was never destined to bring good news for the Republican Party, no matter the outcome. But the stunning victory by Democrat Doug Jones was a devastating blow to a party wracked by divisions and intraparty rivalries and a humiliating defeat for President Trump.

For some Republicans, the fact that the controversial and flawed Roy Moore will not be their new senator from Alabama came with some measure of relief. But the consequences of that outcome will reverberate over the coming months in one legislative battle after another. An already razor-thin margin in the Senate becomes even more tenuous for the party in power.

Beyond that, the tumultuous election served to expose further the fissures, fault lines and rivalries that have only widened in the 13 months since Trump captured the White House. The election provided the capstone to a year of tumult inside the GOP, and at a time when the party controls the levers of power in Washington and states across the country, the Alabama campaign was one more reminder that this is a party facing a major identity crisis and no easy answers for how to resolve it.

In the face of results that showed Jones leading by 20,000 votes and by more than a percentage point, Moore signaled late Tuesday that he had not given up the fight. He refused to concede the race and said he would seek a possible recount. That decision will produce more heartburn among establishment Republicans, who would prefer to see him fade quickly and quietly into obscurity.

Trump suffered mightily after fully embracing Moore in the final weeks of the campaign, despite credible allegations that Moore had engaged in sexually improper behavior with teenage girls when he was in his 30s.

It was the second such setback for the president in a state he won by 28 points just a year ago. In the GOP primary earlier this year, he had endorsed, with limited enthusiasm, Sen. Luther Strange, who had taken the seat of Jeff Sessions when Trump made Sessions his attorney general. For Trump, nothing good has come from that appointment — from a special counsel investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election to a pair of losses in the Alabama races.

The outcome was a bad moment as well for Stephen K. Bannon, once the president’s White House strategist and a man with the expressed commitment of bringing down the GOP establishment. More than Trump, Bannon was all in for Moore, campaigning on his behalf while railing against those in the establishment who had been overtly critical of the GOP nominee.

Bannon has threatened a year of turmoil for the GOP, but in this high-profile test, both he and the president proved to have limited ability to transfer Trump’s popularity to another candidate. This won’t be the last the party hears from Bannon, but he will be viewed differently as a result of what happened on Tuesday.

For those reasons, many Republicans will privately be pleased to see Bannon and even Trump get their comeuppance. But that doesn’t resolve the split within the party over the direction it should take. As long as Trump is president, this is the division and the reality that Republicans will live with — an uneasy coalition at best.

Moore brought to the race a history of defiance to the rule of law, twice having been removed from the state Supreme Court for defying orders. He was hardly popular despite defeating Strange in the primary, but in channeling Trump’s outsider, drain-the-swamp rhetoric, he appealed to many in the Trump and GOP coalition who wanted to stick the party’s congressional leadership in the eye.

His candidacy took a damaging hit after the primary, when The Washington Post reported the accusation that he had initiated a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl when he was in his 30s as well as accounts of other women who said he preyed on them as teenagers. The race turned from an almost-certain victory for the Republicans to a competitive contest that would leave the party with no good outcomes, win or lose.

The fact that he will not be in the Senate spares Republicans from what could have been a spectacle of controversy—a likely ethics investigation that could have led to Moore’s expulsion but that even if it did not, would keep him and the allegations against him in the forefront of the political conversation — to the detriment of the GOP.

A number of Republicans said Tuesday they had feared the worst from a Moore victory, that with him as a sitting senator, supported by the president and the Republican National Committee in his campaign, the party would have put itself on the side of a candidate with racial and other views anathema to most Americans and on the wrong side of the issue of sexual harassment at a moment when the ground is shifting dramatically toward zero tolerance for such behavior.

These Republicans expressed concerns that the GOP could lose the support of young voters for a generation as well as declining support from suburban women who have been part of their coalition in their rise to power. The preliminary exit polls showed the validity of some of those fears, as voters under age 45 went overwhelmingly for Jones against Moore. Women also backed the Democrat’s candidacy, although white women supported Moore.

However contentious the campaign proved to be during the final weeks, the aftermath could be similarly destabilizing for the Republicans. Party leaders will attempt to put the election behind them and return to their efforts to pass a tax bill and deal with other pending legislative issues.

But recriminations are likely, especially with a president who hates to lose and has a record of lashing out when things have not gone his way. The president was opposed in this contest by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who had called for Moore to withdraw after the allegations of sexual misconduct. Though the two will try to come together over the tax cut bill, the ill will that has long existed will remain.

More here.

Why Senate Republicans are rushing to pass an unpopular tax bill, in one sentence

Amber Phillips, reporting for the Washington Post:

The small business lobby. AARP. The medical community. More than half (52 percent) of Americans. Democrats in Congress. They all oppose a tax bill Senate Republicans are hurtling toward passing, as soon as Thursday night.

Republicans are racing to pass this tax bill despite the fact they don’t know what will for sure be in it, nor how it would impact economic growth, nor how tax cuts directed mostly at the wealthy will play politically in next year’s midterm elections.

So then, why the rush to pass it? Because, this: “Failure’s not an option,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) in the halls of Congress on Wednesday.

In other words, Republicans have come to the conclusion failure is worse than passing an unpopular tax bill. Way worse.

In the breath before, Graham had indicated he’ll take pretty much anything that can remotely be called a tax bill: “Susan [Collins]’s got a concern, it’s a real legitimate concern. Ron Johnson’s got a concern. There’s a deficit concern. It’s like making a cocktail. If you’ve got to add more of this and less of that, I’m fine.”

Graham has been the most frank spokesman for how vital this tax bill is to the future of the Republican Party. Donors (who would benefit from this bill) would just stop giving to the party, he’s warned. Republicans could lose their majorities in Congress, he and others have warned. Failures to pass it “will be the end of us as a party,” Graham told the New York Times at one point during this process.

Behind closed doors, Republicans in Congress agree. The common wisdom is they need to prove to donors and voters they can deliver on major campaign promises, the sooner the better.

Their concern may be warranted: Republicans control all levers of government in Washington, and yet they are coming up on one year without a major legislative accomplishment.

After Republicans’ attempt to repeal Obamacare blew up in their face, donors and activists were aghast. Key conservatives —  even huge proponents of getting something, anything, done on health care — said it was time for Republicans to cut their losses and move on.

“This is an epic failure by congressional Republicans,” Tim Phillips, president of the conservative Koch network-funded group Americans for Prosperity, told me at the time. “But it’s time to pivot to tax reform. There’s no time to pout.”

What better way to move on from a failure than by passing something Republicans have spent years dreaming of doing? Especially if that something cuts middle-class taxes, which GOP operatives say would be the easiest bill to sell to an American public already skeptical of the job Republicans are doing controlling Washington.

“Politically, this is, always has been and always will be the most important issue,” Corry Bliss, head of the House GOP super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, told The Fix this summer. “There’s nothing more important than having a good-paying job and being able to provide for your family.”

So, Republicans have come to the conclusion something is better than nothing. That’s really the driving force that could unify about 10 senators with competing concerns about the bill.

Here’s the problem: Something could still cost Republicans. By all past standards of how major legislation gets made, they are rushing through this bill. It would make the biggest changes to the tax code in 30 years, and they don’t have a lot of knowledge about what will happen next.

A key analysis by the Treasury Department the administration was expecting to use as evidence tax cuts at the top would rev the economy doesn’t exist, the New York Times reported — lending credence to Democrats’ and many mainstream economists’ criticism that trickle-down economics doesn’t work.

The Post’s Fact Checker found that millions of Americans would pay higher taxesunder the House’s version of the GOP tax bill, while President Trump would benefit. A nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office report found poor people could see their taxes go up disproportionately under the Senate bill, while millions could be without health insurance. On Thursday afternoon, hours before votes were set to begin, the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation found the Senate GOP bill would add $1 trillion to the deficit over a 10-year period, undercutting Republicans’ arguments the bill would pay for itself.

In other words, this tax bill may not produce tax cuts for the middle class, that magic antidote to Republicans’ failure to repeal Obamacare. There are a lot of other, unforeseen ways passing this tax bill could backfire politically for Republicans.

As Graham has voiced, there’s one big reason it might pass anyway. Because of their past failures earlier this year, more failure is not an option.

Tim Wu: Why the Courts Will Have to Save Net Neutrality

Via The New York Times:

Back in 2005, a small phone company based in North Carolina named Madison River began preventing its subscribers from making phone calls using the internet application Vonage. As Vonage was a competitor in the phone call market, Madison River’s action was obviously anticompetitive. Consumers complained, and the Federal Communications Commission, under Michael Powell, its Republican-appointed chairman, promptly fined the company and forced it to stop blocking Vonage.

That was the moment when “net neutrality” rules went from a mere academic proposal to a part of the United States legal order. On that foundation — an open internet, with no blocking — much of our current internet ecosystem was built.

On Tuesday, the F.C.C. chairman, Ajit Pai, announced plans to eliminate even the most basic net neutrality protections — including the ban on blocking — replacing them with a “transparency” regime enforced by the Federal Trade Commission. “Transparency,” of course, is a euphemism for “doing nothing.” Companies like Madison River, it seems, will soon be able to block internet calls so long as they disclose the blocking (presumably in fine print). Indeed, a broadband carrier like AT&T, if it wanted, might even practice internet censorship akin to that of the Chinese state, blocking its critics and promoting its own agenda.

Allowing such censorship is anathema to the internet’s (and America’s) founding spirit. And by going this far, the F.C.C. may also have overplayed its legal hand. So drastic is the reversal of policy (if, as expected, the commission approves Mr. Pai’s proposal next month), and so weak is the evidence to support the change, that it seems destined to be struck down in court.

The problem for Mr. Pai is that government agencies are not free to abruptly reverse longstanding rules on which many have relied without a good reason, such as a change in factual circumstances. A mere change in F.C.C. ideology isn’t enough. As the Supreme Court has said, a federal agency must “examine the relevant data and articulate a satisfactory explanation for its action.” Given that net neutrality rules have been a huge success by most measures, the justification for killing them would have to be very strong.

It isn’t. In fact, it’s very weak. From what we know so far, Mr. Pai’s rationale for eliminating the rules is that cable and phone companies, despite years of healthy profit, need to earn even more money than they already do — that is, that the current rates of return do not yield adequate investment incentives. More specifically, Mr. Pai claims that industry investments have gone down since 2015, the year the Obama administration last strengthened the net neutrality rules.

Setting aside whether industry investments should be the dominant measure of success in internet policy (what about improved access for students? or the emergence of innovations like streaming TV?), Mr. Pai is not examining the facts: Security and Exchange Commission filings reveal an increase in internet investments since 2015, as the internet advocacy group Free Press has demonstrated.

But Mr. Pai faces a more serious legal problem. Because he is killing net neutrality outright, not merely weakening it, he will have to explain to a court not just the shift from 2015 but also his reasoning for destroying the basic bans on blocking and throttling, which have been in effect since 2005 and have been relied on extensively by the entire internet ecosystem.

This will be a difficult task. What has changed since 2004 that now makes the blocking or throttling of competitors not a problem? The evidence points strongly in the opposite direction: There is a long history of anticompetitive throttling and blocking — often concealed — that the F.C.C. has had to stop to preserve the health of the internet economy. Examples include AT&T’s efforts to keep Skype off iPhones and the blocking of Google Wallet by Verizon. Services like Skype and Netflix would have met an early death without basic net neutrality protections. Mr. Pai needs to explain why we no longer have to worry about this sort of threat — and “You can trust your cable company” will not suffice.

Moreover, the F.C.C. is acting contrary to public sentiment, which may embolden the judiciary to oppose Mr. Pai. Telecommunications policy does not always attract public attention, but net neutrality does, and polls indicate that 76 percent of Americans support it. The F.C.C., in short, is on the wrong side of the democratic majority.

In our times, the judiciary has increasingly become a majoritarian force. It alone, it seems, can prevent narrow, self-interested factions from getting the government to serve unseemly and even shameful ends. And so it falls to the judiciary to stop this latest travesty.

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?