Trump’s dangerous ‘good cop, bad cop’ foreign policy

Kathleen Parker, writing in the Washington Post:

Foreign leaders and local interlocutors, a.k.a. pundits, might as well take a vacation for the next few minutes until President Trump’s next foreign policy “strategy” surfaces from deep within his amygdala.

For to presume a strategy when Trump toys with potentially lethal nations — threatening to tear apart the nuclear agreement with Iran or putting North Korea on notice that doom may befall it any moment — is to imagine that a toddler has given grave consideration to the gravitational aspects of toppling his brother’s Lego edifice.

Theories, nevertheless, abound as the world wonders, no doubt with fear and loathing, what the president of the United States is going to say or do next. It does seem at times that Trump won’t be satisfied unless and until he has managed to prompt a nuclear confrontation with some nation — or two.

One theory goes that by talking tough, Trump is alerting the world that the United States is no longer the weak sister, if I may use an old expression, it had become under President Barack Obama. They’ll tremble at the thought of engaging the United States except to please her, goes such thinking.

Let me clarify: Trump is rattling his borrowed saber because that’s what he does. The bully in chief no longer has to file lawsuits to try to evict widows from their homes for monetary gain. Now he has a military — the world’s most powerful, to be precise — and can decide over chocolate cake to fire missiles at Syria.

Another extant theory concerns the contradictions within his administration. While U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley talks tough on Russia, Trump protects his benign bromance with President Vladimir Putin. This surely has nothing to do with a recent Reuters report that a Russian government think tank came up with a plan to influence the 2016 election.

One at least finds solace in Trump’s recent conclusion that NATO does, in fact, matter. But what happened to the candidate who criticized opponent Hillary Clinton for being too hawkish, and who said we can’t fight two wars at once? How about World War III?

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, meanwhile, pounds Iran with one fist, saying it’s not complying with the nuclear agreement fashioned by his predecessor, John F. Kerry. With the other, he pens a letter to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) saying that Iran is in full compliance. Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, rather than quaking, tweeted Friday: “We’ll see if US prepared to live up to letter of #JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] let alone spirit. So far, it has defied both. Should I use my highlighter again?”

This isn’t to make light of the Iran agreement, about which Trump may be right. It was a lousy deal. But it apparently was the only one possible in July 2015 after months of negotiations among Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States — plus Germany and the European Union. What, pray tell, does Trump think will happen if the United States unilaterally shreds the deal?

More here.

The ‘Oh, never mind’ president

George Will, writing in the Washington Post:

In his first annual message to Congress, John Quincy Adams, among the most experienced and intellectually formidable presidents, warned leaders against giving the impression that “we are palsied by the will of our constituents.” In this regard, if in no other, the 45th president resembles the sixth.

Donald Trump’s “Oh, never mind” presidency was produced by voters stung by the contempt they detected directed toward them by the upper crust. Their insurrection has been rewarded by Trump’s swift shedding of campaign commitments, a repudiation so comprehensive and cavalier that he disdains disguising his disdain for his gulled supporters.

The notion that NATO is obsolete? That China is a currency manipulator? That he would eschew humanitarian interventions featuring high explosives? That the Export-Import Bank is mischievous? That Obamacare would be gone “on Day One”? That 11.5 million illegal immigrants would be gone in two years (almost 480,000 a month)? That the national debt would be gone in eight years (reducing about $2.4 trillion a year)? About these and other vows from the man whose supporters said “he tells it like it is,” he now tells them: Never mind.

The president, whose almost Sicilian sense of clan imparts new meaning to the familiar phrase “family values,” embraces daughter Ivanka’s belief that America suffers from an insufficiency of entitlements, a defect she (and he, judging from his address to a joint session of Congress) would rectify with paid family leave. Her brother Eric has said (to Britain’s Telegraph) that he is “sure” that 59 cruise missiles flew because Ivanka said to her father about Syria using chemical weapons, “Listen, this is horrible stuff.”

Although a senior Trump adviser, Stephen Miller, has stipulated that presidential powers to protect the nation “will not be questioned,” still they persist, those impertinent questioners. They do because when candidate Trump’s open-mic-night-at-the-improv rhetoric of quarter-baked promises and vows is carried over into the presidency and foreign policy, there are consequences, especially when his imprecision infects his subordinates.

One cannot erase with an “Oh, never mind” shrug Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement that the “message” foreign leaders should take from the Syrian attack is “if you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken.” It is not true that the United States will respond, other than rhetorically, to all crossings of those four red lines. If, as Tillerson says, the United States is committed to “holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” the United States is going to need a much bigger military than even the president’s proposed $54 billion increase in defense spending would purchase.

Much more here.

Even in red states, Republicans feel free to criticize Trump on his taxes and travel

Philip Rucker and Sen Sullivan, reporting in the Washington Post:

Oklahoma may be Trump country, but that did not prevent James Lankford (R), the state’s junior senator, from criticizing President Trump this week by saying he ought to “keep his promise” to release his tax returns.

Nor did Trump’s popularity in Iowa stop Sen. Joni Ernst (R) from telling her constituents there that she is perturbed by the president’s frequent jaunts to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla.

“I do wish he would spend more time in Washington, D.C. That is what we have the White House for,” Ernst said at a town hall meeting Tuesday in Wall Lake, Iowa. She said she has not spoken to Trump about “the Florida issue,” but it “has been bothering not just me, but some other members of our caucus.”

As Republican lawmakers face questions from their constituents back home, some elected leaders have been willing to break with their party’s president. Although they generally support Trump’s agenda on such priorities as a tax overhaul and health care, these Republicans are criticizing the president over his continued refusal to make public his tax returns, as past presidents have, and his costly trips to Florida.

Some of those criticizing Trump are not moderates eager to establish political independence, but rather conservatives from red states who are popular with the voters who propelled Trump into office.

The ease with which a GOP favorite such as Ernst has separated from Trump — she has criticized his Florida travel and his defiance on taxes — underscores the weak grip the president and his political operation have on the Republican Party.

“It is hard to defend in today’s world not releasing your tax returns, and it’s hard to defend playing golf at a seven-star resort when it’s a busy time and people are anxious about problems being addressed,” said Ed Rogers, a GOP operative and lobbyist.

David Carney, a GOP strategist, said finding ways to break with Trump on issues such as tax returns and travel “is a smart strategy” — especially at a moment when Trump opponents are galvanized.

“Back in 2009 and 2010, if Democrats had not been drinking Kool-Aid, saying ‘Obama makes no mistakes,’ and actually called him out on a few things, they would have had a better chance to survive the onslaught in the midterm elections,” Carney said.

White House officials say that although they wish GOP lawmakers would be fully supportive of Trump, it matters more that they back him on policies.

“The president has been pretty clear about where he is on releasing his tax returns,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “People knew that before they voted in November, and he still won overwhelmingly. The American people are a lot more concerned about their own taxes than President Trump’s, and that’s what he’s focused on.”

More here.

Paging the Trump Armada

Gail Collins, writing in the New York Times:

Let’s consider the case of the wrong-way warships.

Last week, North Korea was planning a big celebration in honor of its founder’s birthday. For North Koreans, holiday fun is short on barbecues and high on weaponry. The big parade in Pyongyang featured monster canisters that theoretically contained intercontinental ballistic missiles. It’s possible they were actually empty and that right now, North Korea only has bragging rights in the big-container race.

But its intentions were definitely bad, and the United States was worried there might be a missile launch or an underground nuclear test.

What should Donald Trump do? “We’re sending an armada,” said the president. Possible confrontation? As a concerned citizen, you had to be very worried. North Korea is, in every way, a special and dangerous case. It has a leader who is narcissistic to the point of psychosis, with a celebrity fixation and a very strange haircut.

O.K., maybe not entirely unique.

Trump was talking about bringing in four warships, one of them an aircraft carrier. Was this going to mean real shooting? His critics back home had to decide whether to protest, wave the flag in support or simply stock the fallout shelter. (This would be the fallout shelter you repurposed a couple decades ago as a wine cellar, but lately you’ve been thinking it can work both ways.)

Everybody was talking about the dangers. If North Korea sent up a missile, would the U.S. retaliate? Then what would happen to South Korea and Japan? People debated all the variables. The only thing that did not come up was the possibility that the American flotilla was actually no place near the neighborhood.

Yet, as Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt reported in The Times, at the moment the president was announcing his armada, the warships in question were actually going in the opposite direction, en route to a destination 3,500 miles away, where they were to take part in joint exercises with the Australian Navy.

Whoops. The official response was that the administration was sending an armada eventually.

“We said that it was heading there. And it was heading there, it is heading there,” said press secretary Sean Spicer on Wednesday. Under this theory, the president could have responded to North Korea’s latest saber-rattling by announcing that he was going to China, since chances are he’ll get there someday. Sooner or later. Especially if the Chinese can come up with a gold coach like the queen of England’s.

Poor Sean Spicer. Every day a new official fantasy to defend. Tonight the president will go to bed and dream that he’s actually the true heir to the principality of Liechtenstein. Tomorrow Spicer will come into the pressroom on skis and announce we’re declaring war on Switzerland.

* * *

We’re really not asking for a lot, but can’t the president at least be clear about the direction our ships are headed? Concerned citizenry has already adapted to the idea that half the things Trump said during the campaign have now been retracted. NATO is great, the Chinese don’t manipulate their currency. And the Export-Import bank is, well .…

Pop Quiz: Which best describes your feelings about the president’s attitude toward the Export-Import Bank?

A) Happy when he denounced it during the campaign.

B) Glad when he said it was a good thing after all.

C) Worried when he nominated an Export-Import Bank head who seems to hate it.

D) I don’t care about the Export-Import Bank! What about all those bombs?

O.K., O.K. In the end, the North Koreans did test a missile but it exploded right after launch. It is possible this was due to a long-running American cybersabotage program. If so, Trump couldn’t have mentioned it as a matter of security. Otherwise he’d certainly have been out there expressing his gratitude to the Obama administration for having done so much work on it. Hehehehe.

When it comes to Trump and foreign affairs, the big problem is that you want to be fair, but you don’t want to encourage him. A lot of Americans liked the idea of responding to a chemical attack in Syria by bombing a Syrian air base. But if the president thought it was popular, wouldn’t he get carried away? It’s like praising a 4-year-old for coloring a picture, and the next thing you know he’s got his crayons out, heading for the white sofa.

More here.

Retired Miners Lament Trump’s Silence on Imperiled Health Plan

Noam Scheidet, reporting for the New York Times:

Donald J. Trump made coal miners a central metaphor of his presidential campaign, promising to “put our miners back to work” and look after their interests in a way that the Obama administration did not.

Now, three months into his presidency, comes a test of that promise.

Unless Congress intervenes by late April, government-funded health benefits will abruptly lapse for more than 20,000 retired miners, concentrated in Trump states that include Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Many of the miners have serious health problems arising from their years in the mines.

In mining areas like Uniontown, Pa., and surrounding Fayette and Greene Counties, which Mr. Trump carried 2 to 1, it is an upsetting and potentially costly prospect. “It’s just a terrible, terrible feeling,” said one of the retirees, David VanSickle, who spent four decades at work in the mines. “I think about that 25 times a day.”

The president has offered no public comment on the issue, even as he has rolled back regulations on mine operators, an omission that has not escaped the notice of Mr. VanSickle and other retired miners.

“To me, that was kind of a promise he did make to us,” Mr. VanSickle said about Mr. Trump, whom he supported last fall. “He promised to help miners, not just mining companies.”

Responsibility for the retirees’ health plans has increasingly shifted to the federal government in recent years, as struggling coal companies have shed their liabilities in bankruptcy court. Congress voted last fall to finance benefits for a large group of retirees for several months, but House and Senate Republican leaders have yet to agree on a longer-term solution.

The benefits can easily mean the difference between a middle-class retirement and economic hardship, since many retired miners are too young to qualify for Medicare. Others have chronic or debilitating health problems that would require expensive supplemental coverage — currently provided by the retiree plan — even with the Medicare benefit.

Much more here.

Donald Trump must follow through on his earlier promises to miners, or lose whatever support they provide.

A month after dismissing federal prosecutors, Justice Department does not have any U.S. attorneys in place

Sari Horwitz, reporting for the Washington Post:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is making aggressive law enforcement a top priority, directing his federal prosecutors across the country to crack down on illegal immigrants and “use every tool” they have to go after violent criminals and drug traffickers.

But the attorney general does not have a single U.S. attorney in place to lead his tough-on-crime efforts across the country. Last month, Sessions abruptly told the dozens of remaining Obama administration U.S. attorneys to submit their resignations immediately — and none of them, or the 47 who had already left, have been replaced.

“We really need to work hard at that,” Sessions said when asked Tuesday about the vacancies as he opened a meeting with federal law enforcement officials. The 93 unfilled U.S. attorney positions are among the hundreds of critical Trump administration jobs that remain open.

Sessions is also without the heads of his top units, including the civil rights, criminal and national security divisions, as he tries to reshape the Justice Department.

U.S. attorneys, who prosecute federal crimes from state offices around the nation, are critical to implementing an attorney general’s law enforcement agenda. Both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations gradually eased out the previous administration’s U.S. attorneys while officials sought new ones.

Sessions said that until he has his replacements, career acting U.S. attorneys “respond pretty well to presidential leadership.”

But former Justice Department officials say that acting U.S. attorneys do not operate with the same authority when interacting with police chiefs and other law enforcement executives.

“It’s like trying to win a baseball game without your first-string players on the field,” said former assistant attorney general Ronald Weich, who ran the Justice Department’s legislative affairs division during Obama’s first term.

“There are human beings occupying each of those seats,” Weich, now dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law, said of the interim officials. “But that’s not the same as having appointed and confirmed officials who represent the priorities of the administration. And the administration is clearly way behind in achieving that goal.”

Filling the vacancies has also been complicated by Sessions not having his second-highest-ranking official in place. Rod J. Rosenstein, nominated for deputy attorney general — the person who runs the Justice Department day-to-day — is still not on board, although he is expected to be confirmed by the Senate this month. Traditionally, the deputy attorney general helps to select the U.S. attorneys.

More here.

Trump’s Unreleased Taxes Threaten Yet Another Campaign Promise

Alan Rappeport, reporting for the New York Times:

President Trump’s promise to enact a sweeping overhaul of the tax code is in serious jeopardy nearly 100 days into his tenure, and his refusal to release his own tax returns is emerging as a central hurdle to another faltering campaign promise.

As procrastinators rushed to file their tax returns by Tuesday, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, emphasized again on Monday that Mr. Trump had no intention of making his public. Democrats have seized on that decision, uniting around a pledge not to cooperate on any rewriting of the tax code unless they know specifically how that revision would benefit the billionaire president and his family.

And a growing roster of more than a dozen Republican lawmakers now say Mr. Trump should release them.

“If he doesn’t release his returns, it is going to make it much more difficult to get tax reform done,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, pointing out that the president has significant conflicts of interest on issues such as taxation of the real estate industry and elimination of the estate tax. “It’s in his own self-interest.”

With Republicans sharply divided on a path forward and the administration unable to come up with a plan of its own, the Democratic resistance is only the newest impediment.

As a candidate, Mr. Trump declared that he understood America’s complex tax laws “better than anyone who has ever run for president” and that he alone could fix them. But it is becoming increasingly unlikely that there will be a simpler system, or even lower tax rates, this time next year. The Trump administration’s tax plan, promised in February, has yet to materialize; a House Republican plan has bogged down, taking as much fire from conservatives as liberals; and on Monday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told The Financial Times that the administration’s goal of getting a tax plan signed by August was “not realistic at this point.”

A tax overhaul could be the next expansive Trump campaign promise that falters before it even gathered much steam.

“If they have no plan, they can’t negotiate,” said Larry Kudlow, the economist who helped Mr. Trump devise his campaign tax plan. “In that case, tax reform is dead.”

The first pitfall for Mr. Trump was the debacle of his health care plan, which burned political capital and precious days off the legislative calendar. But his administration saw repealing the taxes imposed by the Affordable Care Act as an important step that would allow for deeper tax cuts later. Mr. Trump even suggested last week that he might return to health care before tax cuts.

Republican leaders in Congress also failed to create momentum. Speaker Paul D. Ryan built a tax blueprint around a “border adjustment” tax that would have imposed a steep levy on imports, hoping to encourage domestic manufacturing while raising revenue that could be used to lower overall tax rates. But it has been assailed by retailers, oil companies and the billionaire Koch brothers. With no palpable support in the Senate, its prospects appear to be nearly dead. Heading into a congressional recess, Mr. Ryan admitted that Republicans in the House, Senate and White House were not on the same page.

The president’s own vision for a new tax system is muddled at best. In the past few months, he has called for taxing companies that move operations abroad, waffled on the border tax and, last week, called for a “reciprocal” tax that would match the import taxes other countries impose on the United States.

But it is Mr. Trump’s own taxes that have provided the crucial leverage for his opponents. More than 100,000 of his critics took to the streets over the weekend in marches around the country, demanding that the president release his returns. Tax legislation, they say, could be a plot by Mr. Trump to get even richer.

More here.

The number of Americans who think Trump keeps his promises is plummeting

Jenna McGregor, reporting for the Washington Post:

President Trump‘s setbacks on campaign promises such as repealing the Affordable Care Act and his shifting positions on other stances look like they’re catching up with him — bigly.

A new poll from Gallup released early Monday finds that a majority of Americans no longer view Trump as keeping his promises, with poll numbers on that question falling from 62 percent in February to 45 percent in early April, a stunning tumble of 17 percentage points. The drop was seen across every demographic group: women, men, millennials, baby boomers and people with political leanings of all kinds. While numbers sank the furthest among respondents who identified as a Democrat or liberal, independents who said they thought Trump kept his promises fell from 59 percent to 43 percent; even among Republicans, the numbers fell, from 92 percent to 81 percent.

The poll, which was taken between April 5 and April 9, showed that Trump’s ratings fell on all six presidential leadership characteristics that Gallup measures. The percentage who think he is a “strong and decisive leader” also took a big hit, falling from 59 percent to 52 percent. So did the share of people who think he can “bring about changes this country needs,” which fell seven percentage points, too, to 46 percent. Just 36 percent see him as “honest and trustworthy,” compared with 42 percent in February.

On two other measures, whether Trump “cares about the needs of people like you” and “can manage the government effectively,” the president’s numbers also fell, although Gallup noted those declines were not statistically significant.

The ratings dive was most stark when it came to women who think Trump keeps his promises — just 40 percent now say he does, compared with 65 percent in February, a striking 25 percentage-point plunge. In a write-up of the results, Gallup explained that the numbers came after Trump’s defeat over repealing the Affordable Care Act, as supporters have become unhappy he hasn’t done more on taxes and immigration while detractors are upset he hasn’t protected middle- and working-class Americans.

What may be most remarkable is that the poll was performed before Trump dramatically flipped his positions on multiple other stances in the days that followed, as The Post’s Fact Checker column recounted last week. After saying he’d move on to tax reform after the GOP‘s stinging defeat on its health-care bill, Trump said in a Fox Business Network interview on April 11 that he would “do health care first.” And in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he said guidelines on rewriting the tax code would come only after a new health-care bill passes, although his budget director later said the two were “on parallel tracks.”

* * *

“Strong and decisive leadership” is the only characteristic in the Gallup survey for which a majority of U.S. adults (52 percent) still give Trump positive grades. But even that majority is slim, dropping seven percentage points from February. It followed other polls that have shown a similar trend. For the past three weeks, the Economist/YouGov poll has found that just 50 or 51 percent of U.S. adults said Trump was either a “very strong” or “somewhat strong” leader in a question about leadership qualities, down from 61 percent in the results after his inauguration.

That attribute — a leadership style that’s “strong and decisive” — was said to be extremely important to voters in at least one poll after the last election. A Morning Consult/Politico exit poll from November showed that voters said being a strong leader was the most important characteristic they used when choosing a president, with 36 percent saying it mattered most, compared with just 18 percent who said the same in 2012.

More here.

Trump’s no populist. He’s a swamp monster.

Dana Milbank, reporting for the Washington Post:

Last year, Mark Meckler, one of the founders of the tea party movement, had concerns about Donald Trump but gave the Republican nominee the benefit of the doubt, because Trump “at least says he’s going to attack” the crony-capitalist system.

Now the conservative activist has revised his opinion. Trump “said he was going to D.C. to drain the swamp,” Meckler said in a recent Fox Business interview, but “now it looks like we’ve got the Creature from the Black Lagoon in the White House.”

For everybody else who believed Trump’s populist talk about tackling a rigged system, it’s time to recognize you’ve been had. The president of the United States is a swamp monster.

The billionaire has embraced a level of corporate control of the government that makes previous controversies involving corporate influence — Vice President Dick Cheney’s attempt in 2001 to keep secret the names of industry officials who participated in his energy task force, for example — seem quaint by comparison.

In the quiet of Good Friday, President Trump’s White House announced that it would end the practice of releasing White House visitor logs, giving the public no way to know which corporate suitors have the ear of Trump and his staff. Trump was already insulated from such disclosure during the disproportionate amount of his presidency he spends at Mar-a-Lago and other Trump properties.

Trump seems to think people won’t care about this any more than they do about his refusal to release his tax returns and other disclosures that would reveal his conflicts of interest. It’s true that “transparency” is the sort of subject that usually excites only good-government types. But in this case the opacity is obscuring the rise of a new American plutocracy.

Steven Aftergood, who runs the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, said Trump’s actions are testing “the character of the U.S. government” and raise the possibility of the government “devolving into some kind of corporate mutation where the wealthy and well-connected rule.”

Trump has made a series of policy reversals in recent days from his populist campaign positions — on Chinese currency, trade, the Export-Import Bank and more — as the nationalist influence of Steve Bannon fades. This isn’t solely because Trump has stocked his administration at the highest levels with fellow billionaires, corporate types such as son-in-law Jared Kushner and veterans of Goldman Sachs.

ProPublica and the New York Times reported over the weekend that the Trump administration is being populated with former lobbyists, lawyers and consultants who are making policy for the industries that had been paying them. The arrangement has violated Trump’s (already weakened) ethics rules, and the administration is secretly issuing waivers exempting the former lobbyists from rules blocking them from working on issues that would benefit their former clients. Trump White House officials had more than 300 recent corporate clients and employers, the Times reported, and more than 40 former lobbyists are now in the White House and federal government. The director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics says even he has “no idea how many waivers have been issued.”

And these corporations are set to get what they paid for.

My Post colleague Juliet Eilperin reported Sunday on some of the 168 requests corporate interests have made, and are likely to be given, for regulatory relief, many of them seeking reduced environmental protections and worker rights. BP wants to make it easier to drill in the Gulf of Mexico. The pavement industry wants a halt to research on the environmental impact of coal tar. And my favorite: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s request that employers no longer be required to report their injury and illness records electronically to the Labor Department.

More here.

With Trump Appointees, a Raft of Potential Conflicts and ‘No Transparency’

Via The New York Times:

President Trump is populating the White House and federal agencies with former lobbyists, lawyers and consultants who in many cases are helping to craft new policies for the same industries in which they recently earned a paycheck.

The potential conflicts are arising across the executive branch, according to an analysis of recently released financial disclosures, lobbying records and interviews with current and former ethics officials by The New York Times in collaboration with ProPublica.

In at least two cases, the appointments may have already led to violations of the administration’s own ethics rules. But evaluating if and when such violations have occurred has become almost impossible because the Trump administration is secretly issuing waivers to the rules.

One such case involves Michael Catanzaro, who serves as the top White House energy adviser. Until late last year, he was working as a lobbyist for major industry clients such as Devon Energy of Oklahoma, an oil and gas company, and Talen Energy of Pennsylvania, a coal-burning electric utility, as they fought Obama-era environmental regulations, including the landmark Clean Power Plan. Now, he is handling some of the same matters on behalf of the federal government.

This revolving door of lobbyists and government officials is not new in Washington. Both parties make a habit of it.

But the Trump administration is more vulnerable to conflicts than the prior administration, particularly after the president eliminated an ethics provision that prohibits lobbyists from joining agencies they lobbied in the prior two years. The White House also announced on Friday that it would keep its visitors’ logs secret, discontinuing the release of information on corporate executives, lobbyists and others who enter the complex, often to try to influence federal policy. The changes have drawn intense criticism from government ethics advocates across the city.

Mr. Trump’s appointees are also far wealthier and have more complex financial holdings and private-sector ties than officials hired at the start of the Obama administration, according to an Office of Government Ethics analysis that the White House has made public. This creates a greater chance that they might have conflicts related to investments or former clients, which could force them to sell off assets, recuse themselves or seek a waiver.

A White House spokeswoman, Sarah H. Sanders, declined repeated requests by The Times to speak with Stefan C. Passantino, the White House lawyer in charge of the ethics policy. Instead, the White House provided a written statement that did not address any of the specific questions about potential violations The Times had identified.

“The White House takes its ethics pledge and federal conflict of interest rules very seriously,” the statement said. “The White House requires all of its employees to work closely with ethics counsel to ensure compliance and has aggressively required employees to recuse or divest where the law requires.”

The Trump administration’s overhaul of personnel lays the groundwork for sweeping policy changes. The president has vowed to unwind some of the Obama administration’s signature regulatory initiatives, from Wall Street rules to environmental regulations, and he has installed a class of former corporate influencers to lead the push. Administration supporters argue that appointees with corporate ties can inject a new level of sophistication into the federal bureaucracy and help the economy grow. And efforts to trim regulations in some areas have attracted bipartisan support.

But in several cases, officials in the Trump administration now hold the exact jobs they targeted as lobbyists or lawyers in the past two years.

Trump White House officials had over 300 recent corporate clients and employers, including Apple, the giant hedge fund Citadel and the insurance titan Anthem, according to a Times analysis of financial disclosures. (The White House has released disclosures for only about half of its roughly 180 current senior political employees.) And there are more than 40 former lobbyists in the White House and the broader federal government.

Walter M. Shaub Jr. is director of the Office of Government Ethics, which advises federal agencies to help them and their employees — including the White House — comply with federal ethics laws, such as a prohibition on using a government post to personally profit.

He said that Mr. Trump’s own ethics executive order in late January eliminated a requirement, first adopted by President Barack Obama, that executive branch appointees not accept jobs in agencies they recently lobbied. That weakened standards applying to approximately 4,000 executive branch hires.

Mr. Trump also made it easier for former lobbyists in the government to get waivers that would let them take up matters that could benefit former clients.

During the Obama administration, these waivers were given only under a narrow set of circumstances, and had to be filed and explained in an annual report for public inspection, Mr. Shaub said. The waivers were also previously posted on the Government Ethics website. None have been posted since Mr. Trump became president, as sharing them is no longer required.

“There’s no transparency, and I have no idea how many waivers have been issued,” Mr. Shaub said in an interview, adding that he could not comment on any individual matter until a complaint had been filed and investigated.

Much more here.

‘Prediction professor’ lays out eight reasons Trump could be impeached

Peter W. Stevenson, writing in the Washington Post:

American University Professor Allan Lichtman was one of the few professional prognosticators to call President Trump’s win in November.

Using his system of “Keys to the White House,” which postulates that presidential elections are essentially a reflection on the party in power, Lichtman said Trump was headed for the presidency. Then, just before the election, he doubled down.

And he made a second prediction, too (though, this time, without the benefit of his keys) — that Trump will be impeached before his time in office ends.

Now, he’s written a whole book explaining how that could happen, titled “The Case for Impeachment,” publishing on April 18. Lichtman lays out eight ways that Trump could get in trouble, set against the historic background of previous presidential impeachments. The Fix sat down with Lichtman at his office at American University in Washington to ask him about his most recent prediction. Our conversation, below, has been edited only for clarity and length.

The Fix: You were one of the only people who called Trump’s win before November — and then you doubled down on your prediction, just before the election, adding that you predict he’ll be impeached. Take me through that process.

Lichtman: First, in September of 2016, and then on a double down in October of 2016, I predicted, against all the pundits and all the pollsters, that Donald Trump would be the next president of the United States. And I have to tell you, I took a lot of flak for that prediction. A lot of people thought I was way off base.

One of the ones who noticed, though, was Donald Trump, who wrote me a note saying, “Congratulations on your prediction.” What he probably didn’t pay attention to was, at the same time, I also predicted that although Donald Trump would be elected, he would also be impeached, becoming the first president to be impeached, of course, since Bill Clinton.

Fix: Your official prediction for the winner of the election was based on a system of keys that you tested over decades, but this latest prediction, of his impeachment, while it’s still based on history, is not based on a refined system or science. So how do you back that up? Not just your gut instinct, what’s your actual evidence?

Lichtman: Well, my prediction of a Trump victory was based on my long-standing prediction system, the Keys to the White House, which I’ve used successfully for the last nine elections since 1984. My prediction of a Trump impeachment was not based on a formal scientific system, but was based on a deep study of the history of (impeachment), the process of (impeachment) and Donald Trump’s own history. He hadn’t become president yet! But he had a long history as a businessman and someone at least peripherally involved in politics. And I put all of that deep historical study together in my new book, “The Case for Impeachment.”

This book looks at the history of impeachment — cases like that of Andrew Johnson in 1868, Richard Nixon, who resigned before he was going to be impeached, Bill Clinton. It looks at how impeachment really works, which is quite different from the way most people think it does. You don’t actually have to commit a crime to be impeached. The House of Representatives basically decides what constitutes impeachment, and it could be any violation of the public trust, whether or not it’s a crime. And finally there’s great depth in Donald Trump’s history, and at least through mid-March, the events of his presidency. And it lays out, believe it or not, eight different grounds on why Donald Trump could be removed from office.

Fix: It’s not actually that uncommon for presidents to be impeached. While it’s certainly a political disaster, it’s not necessarily a national disaster for a president to be impeached either.

Lichtman: It’s not uncommon, and America’s framers kind of believed that impeachment was a critically important element of the Constitution — to be a check on a rogue president who they believe could otherwise smash through even the checks and balances built into our system. And counting Richard Nixon, who resigned before he certainly would have been impeached, one out of every 14 American presidents has faced impeachment. You know, gamblers have gotten rich betting much longer odds than that.

And impeachments have not been national disasters. If you look back at the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868, it was good for the country, not bad, because Johnson had been obstruction to Reconstruction. He had been obstructing the integration of the newly freed slave into American life, and after being chastised by impeachment, even though he wasn’t convicted by the Senate, he moderated his policies.

After the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the presidency emerged stronger than ever. It wasn’t weakened — some might even say too strong. And of course, the near-impeachment and resignation of Richard Nixon removed a clear and present danger to our democracy from office. And I believe one of the reasons Trump is vulnerable to impeachment is that he shares many of the same traits as Richard Nixon, and poses the same kind of threat to our constitutional system, our liberties and our freedoms.

Fix: But right now, Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House. Why would House Republicans impeach their own guy?

Lichtman: Well, they’re not going to unless the American people demand it. Yes, the power of impeachment is lodged in the U.S. House of Representatives, but they are the people’s house, and they are responsive to the people.

The Republican Congress could conceivably move to impeachment if they believe Trump is a liability to them, and remember, every member has to stand for reelection in 2018. And Trump has no long-standing relationship with these members of Congress. He hasn’t really been a mainstay of the Republican Party. And there is also the possibility that in 2018 you have a wave election, which gives Democrats control of the House and completely changes the political dynamic.

But barring that, understand, not all Republicans have to be in favor of impeachment. If Democrats want it, and two dozen Republicans, approximately, switch, you have enough votes for impeachment. All it takes is a simple majority.

And finally, remember: Republicans really don’t trust Donald Trump. He’s a loose cannon. But they love Mike Pence. He’s a down-the-line Christian conservative dream president for the Republicans in Congress.

More here.

Jeff Sessions, Unleashed at the Border

Via The New York Times Editorial Board:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions went to the border in Arizona on Tuesday and declared it a hellscape, a “ground zero” of death and violence where Americans must “take our stand” against a tide of evil flooding up from Mexico.

It was familiar Sessions-speak, about drug cartels and “transnational gangs” poisoning and raping and chopping off heads, things he said for years on the Senate floor as the gentleman from Alabama. But with a big difference: Now he controls the machinery of federal law enforcement, and his gonzo-apocalypto vision of immigration suddenly has force and weight behind it, from the officers and prosecutors and judges who answer to him.

When Mr. Sessions got to the part about the “criminal aliens and the coyotes and the document forgers” overthrowing our immigration system, the American flag behind him had clearly heard enough — it leaned back and fell over as if in a stupor. An agent rushed to rescue it, and stood there for the rest of the speech: a human flag stand and metaphor. A guy with a uniform and gun, wrapped in Old Glory, helping to give the Trump administration’s nativist policies a patriotic sheen.

It was in the details of Mr. Sessions’s oratory that his game was exposed. He talked of cities and suburbs as immigrant-afflicted “war zones,” but the crackdown he seeks focuses overwhelmingly on nonviolent offenses, the document fraud and unauthorized entry and other misdeeds that implicate many people who fit no sane definition of brutal criminal or threat to the homeland.

The problem with Mr. Sessions’s turbocharging of the Justice Department’s efforts against what he paints as machete-wielding “depravity” is how grossly it distorts the bigger picture. It reflects his long fixation — shared by his boss, President Trump — on immigration not as an often unruly, essentially salutary force in American history, but as a dire threat. It denies the existence of millions of people who are a force for good, economic mainstays and community assets, less prone to crime than the native-born — workers, parents, children, neighbors and, above all, human beings deserving of dignity and fair treatment under the law.

Mr. Sessions is ordering his prosecutors to make immigration a priority, to consider prosecution in any case involving “transportation and harboring of aliens” and to consider felony charges for an extended menu of offenses, like trying to re-enter after deportation, “aggravated identity theft” and fraudulent marriage.

He said the government was now detaining every adult stopped at the border, and vowed to “surge” the supply of immigration judges, to increase the flow of unauthorized immigrants through the courts and out of the country. He has ordered all 94 United States attorney’s offices to designate “border security coordinators,” no matter how far from “ground zero” they are.

Mr. Sessions and the administration are being led by their bleak vision to the dark side of the law. The pieces are falling into place for the indiscriminate “deportation force” that the president promised. Mr. Sessions and the homeland security secretary, John Kelly, have attacked cities and states that decline to participate in the crackdown. Mr. Sessions has threatened these “sanctuary” locales with loss of criminal-justice funding, on the false assertion that they are defying the law. (In fact, “sanctuary” cities are upholding law and order. They recognize that enlisting state and local law enforcement for deportation undermines community trust, local policing and public safety.)

More here.

Suburban G.O.P. Voters Sour on Party, Raising Republican Fears for 2018

Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin, reporting for the New York Times:

A gray mood has settled over conservative-leaning voters in some of the country’s most reliably Republican congressional districts, as the party’s stumbles in Washington demoralize them and leave lawmakers scrambling to energize would-be supporters in a series of off-year elections.

While the next nationwide elections are not until 2018, Republicans have grown fearful that these voters are recoiling from what they see as lamentable conditions in Washington: a government entirely in Republican hands that has failed to deliver on fundamental goals like overhauling the health care system.

Early missteps by President Trump and congressional leaders have weighed heavily on voters from the party’s more affluent wing, anchored in right-of-center suburbs around major cities in the South and Midwest. Never beloved in these precincts, Mr. Trump appears to be struggling to maintain support from certain voters who backed him last year mainly as a way of defeating Hillary Clinton.

Interviews with Republican-leaning voters in four suburban districts — in Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota and New Jersey — revealed a sour outlook on the party. These voters, mainly white professionals, say they expected far more in the way of results by now, given the Republican grip on power in the capital. In opinion polls, they consistently give Mr. Trump mediocre approval ratings, even as he remains solidly popular with lower-income whites.

In the past, first-term presidents have suffered grievous losses in midterm elections, when their party’s voters have stayed home while the opposition party has marched to the barricades. Former President Barack Obama saw Democrats lose 63 House seats in 2010 after Republicans and disaffected independents stampeded to the polls and grumbling Democrats did not.

It is too early to say if the same dynamic is afflicting Mr. Trump. But already, Republicans have strained to prop up their candidates in a pair of special House elections in the areas around Atlanta and Wichita, Kan., both in districts that have voted overwhelmingly Republican in past congressional races.

Republicans spent nearly $100,000 in last-minute ads boosting Ron Estes, a candidate in Kansas, who won a relatively narrow victory Tuesday night as turnout from the party’s voters slumped. Wary national Democrats invested little money in the race, prompting criticism from activists seeking to fight Mr. Trump’s party on every possible front.

Republicans may face a tougher test next week in Georgia, where both parties have poured millions into contesting the seat vacated by Tom Price, Mr. Trump’s new health and human services secretary. At a well-tended shopping mall outside Atlanta, Eric Riehm, 48, said he was beginning to question the point of casting his ballot for Republicans.

“The vote seems to matter less and less, because nothing can be done, just like repealing Obamacare,” said Mr. Riehm, who works in information technology sales and voted for Mr. Trump.

That malaise cuts across regional lines: In the New Jersey district held by Representative Leonard Lance, a Republican, Joe Boyle, 61, said he took a dim view of Mr. Trump but still hoped he would turn things around.

Mr. Boyle, who said he usually votes Republican, faulted the party for failing to “do the homework” on health care, and criticized lawmakers for focusing on their own interests instead of forging bipartisan agreements.

“It’s all about ‘me,’ not about the better good of the overall population,” said Mr. Boyle, who recently retired as a marketing executive at Johnson & Johnson. Of Mr. Trump, he added: “He’s a mess.”

Where Democratic activists have flocked to off-season races, hustling to volunteer, donate money and quickly cast their ballots in early-voting periods, Republicans have seen no comparable energy on their side. They have taken special measures to drum up interest: In Kansas, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas held a last-minute rally to draw attention to the race, and Mr. Trump praised Mr. Estes on Twitter on Tuesday morning.

But in an illustration of the rising frustration among rank-and-file Republicans, Mr. Cruz received his loudest ovation when he rebuked his own party. “We have a Republican president, we have a Republican House, we have a Republican Senate — how about we act like it!” he demanded.

Much more here.

Court Approved Wiretap on Trump Campaign Aide Over Russia Ties

Via The New York Times:

The Justice Department obtained a secret court-approved wiretap last summer on Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign, based on evidence that he was operating as a Russian agent, a government official said Wednesday.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issued the warrant, the official said, after investigators determined that Mr. Page was no longer part of the Trump campaign, which began distancing itself from him in early August. Mr. Page is one of several Trump associates under scrutiny in a federal investigation.

The Justice Department considered direct surveillance of anyone tied to a political campaign as a line it did not want to cross, the official added. But its decision to seek a wiretap once it was clear that Mr. Page had left the campaign was the latest indication that, as Mr. Trump built his insurgent run for the White House, the F.B.I. was deeply concerned about whether any of his associates were colluding with Russia.

To obtain the warrant, the government needed to show probable cause that Mr. Page was acting as an agent of Russia. Investigators must first get approval from one of three senior officials at the Justice Department. Then, prosecutors take it to a surveillance court judge.

And though the Trump administration has said Mr. Page was a bit player who had no access to the candidate, the wiretap shows the F.B.I. had strong evidence that a campaign adviser was operating on behalf of Moscow.

Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Page have called the investigation a “witch hunt” and said it was cooked up by their political rivals for speaking out against President Barack Obama’s policies. On Tuesday, Mr. Page said in an email that it “will be interesting to see what comes out when the unjustified basis for those FISA requests are more fully disclosed over time,” using shorthand for the court.

The F.B.I. declined to comment. James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director, has described the hurdles to obtaining an intelligence wiretap as a “rigorous, rigorous process.”

The wiretap of Mr. Page was reported by The Washington Post. The revelation followed months of speculation about such warrants against associates of Mr. Trump, an idea that was broached in November by Heat Street, a news and entertainment website that cited a pair of unnamed sources with “links to the counterintelligence community” in its report. Heat Street was founded by Louise Mensch, a former Conservative member of the British Parliament who emerged as a fierce critic of Mr. Trump, and it is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which publishes The Wall Street Journal and The Times of London.

The official who confirmed the warrant against Mr. Page did so on the condition of anonymity because intelligence wiretaps are classified.

The official was not aware of any instances in which an active member of Mr. Trump’s campaign was directly surveilled by American law-enforcement or spy agencies, though some Trump associates were swept up in surveillance of foreign officials.

That assertion was in line with previous statements by Obama administration officials, including James R. Clapper Jr., the former director of national intelligence, who said during a March 5 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the surveillance court issued no warrants either for the president or his campaign staff.

“For the part of the national security apparatus that I oversaw as D.N.I., there was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president-elect at the time, or as a candidate, or against his campaign,” Mr. Clapper said.

As part of the investigation, American intelligence agencies have examined wiretapped communications and phone records. Among those intercepts were conversations among Kremlin officials about contacts with people close to Mr. Trump, including Mr. Page, according to current and former American security officials.

A spokesman for Mr. Clapper did not respond for requests for comment. A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.

Mr. Page, a former Moscow-based investment banker for Merrill Lynch who later founded an investment company in New York called Global Energy Capital, has been on the F.B.I.’s radar screen for years.

Much more here.