President Trump is now holding the Republican Party hostage

Aaron Blake, reporting for the Washington Post:

President Trump waged a hostile takeover of the Republican Party’s presidential nomination last year. Now he’s holding the entire party hostage.

Early Wednesday afternoon, Trump inexplicably cut a deal on a short-term debt-ceiling increase with Democratic leaders, despite House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and GOP leaders having denounced the idea. Then he took off for an event in North Dakota, where he effectively stuck their nose in it: “We walked out of there — Mitch [McConnell] and Paul and everybody, Kevin [McCarthy] — and we walked out and everybody was happy,” Trump insisted. Then, to top it all off, he invited Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) — a top GOP target in 2018 — on stage and praised her as a “good woman.”

This is all hugely counterproductive for the Republican Party and has to have GOP leaders privately fuming. And it comes on the heels of Trump directly attacking Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and tangling with the two most vulnerable GOP senators up for reelection in 2018, Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.).

It’s no secret that Trump has never really had the interests of the Republican Party at heart. His party affiliation has always been subject to change, and he has never played ball with the GOP powers that be. He has instead forced them to bend to his will in the name of keeping the peace and not inflaming his passionate base of support. Those GOP leaders have also wagered that, whatever headaches came with embracing Trump, they would at least have a Republican president to enact conservative policies.

But it’s beginning to get ridiculous for GOP leaders. That bargain they struck with Trump was always a tenuous and uneasy one, and he’s now openly violating it. What’s more, he’s repeatedly and publicly undermining GOP efforts to grow their Senate majority — you know, the one he insists isn’t big enough so he needs to nuke the filibuster — in multiple 2018 races.

More here.

If you live by the sword, you die by the sword.

How the pardon power could end Trump’s presidency

Philip Allen Lacovara, reporting for the Washington Post:

President Trump’s pardon of former Arizona sheriff and civil rights abuser Joe Arpaio raises the question of whether the president may act with impunity to pardon individuals caught up in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia. Based on my experience studying the pardon power during the Watergate investigation, I believe the answer is no.

Almost certainly, a presidential decision to preemptively pardon any of those caught up in Mueller’s investigation, whether former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former national security adviser Michael Flynn or Donald Trump Jr., would be effective and would spare those pardoned from prosecution, at least on the federal level.

So Trump may be tempted to use this mechanism to extricate himself from what he calls derisively “the Russia thing.”

But issuing pardons to his own friends, associates and relatives could be a perilous path for Trump, creating additional exposure on two levels, criminal and political — both flowing from an important proposition that is often overlooked in the debate over presidential power. Our legal system provides mechanisms for probing the intent and motives behind the exercise of power. The president may have the power to grant effective pardons in the Russia investigation, but both Congress and the federal prosecutor are entitled to determine whether the exercise of that power violates constitutional and statutory norms.

The most obvious constraint is the authority of the House of Representatives to determine whether an effort to squelch an investigation into criminal misconduct by people close to the president constitutes an impeachable offense. The core concept behind “high crimes and misdemeanors” is abuse of political power in violation of the best interests of the nation. Thus, it would not be necessary for the House to conclude that the decision to issue pardons constituted a conventional “crime.” All that would be required would be to find that the motive for pardons was to protect the president’s personal interests and political future by cutting off the investigation into the misdeeds of those around him.

While impeachment remains an unlikely political prospect at the moment, so it was during Watergate — until the “Saturday Night Massacre” dramatically changed the political landscape. A decision by Trump to pardon his close friends and associates for any complicity in colluding with a hostile foreign power could easily trigger a similar firestorm, with comparable political consequences.

But Trump should not ignore the potential criminal pitfalls of exercising his pardon power in this context. As with any other presidential power, the power to pardon is constrained by the ordinary requirements of federal law applicable to all public officials. For example, if representatives of a pardon-seeker arrived in the Oval Office with a bundle of cash that the president accepted in return for a pardon, there is little doubt that the president would be guilty of the crime of bribery.

More apt than bribery in the current context is the array of federal statutes that make it a crime to “obstruct justice.” Those statutes turn on the motive behind a person’s action, even if the person otherwise has the power to take the action. For example, under Section 1503 of the federal criminal code, any person who “corruptly . . . influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice” commits a felony. If Trump were to pardon any of the figures in the current Russia investigation, his action would certainly impede or obstruct the due administration of justice, as the courts have broadly construed that standard.

It would not be difficult to imagine Mueller making the case that the motive behind such interference was “corrupt.” As the Founding Fathers made plain, the purpose behind the pardon power is to extend mercy to those who have offended and have demonstrated remorse. Using the pardon power to protect the president’s own interests against embarrassment or exposure is not legitimate. Rather, a crassly self-interested exercise of presidential power to impede the due administration of justice is the very antithesis of the president’s most solemn oath — “to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

And that is why Trump should take care — to make sure that wielding his pardon power, however tempting, does not blow up in his face. An attempt to use pardons to defend his presidency may end up imperiling it instead.

‘We should call evil by its name’: Republicans are standing up to Trump more directly than ever on Charlottesville

Amber Phillips, reporting for the Washington Post:

When President Trump issued his travel ban a few days into his presidency, at least eight Senate Republicans opposed it. When he fired his FBI director in May, more than a dozen Senate Republicans openly questioned it. When Trump prodded senators to vote for an Obamacare repeal bill, three of them didn’t. When Trump urged Republicans to try again or risk being labeled failures, they ignored him. When Trump started attacking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last week, a handful of them went out of their way to publicly back McConnell.

And with Charlottesville on its knees this weekend as protests led by white supremacists turned deadly, Senate Republicans had their most overt conflict with the president yet.

A number of Senate Republicans criticized nothing less than the way Trump chose to be president Saturday. They publicly and directly condemned his words and action. More specifically, they criticized his lack of words and actions to clearly and forcefully denounce the white supremacy roiling Charlottesville’s streets and seizing the nation’s attention.

White supremacists and neo-Nazis are, by definition, opposed to American patriotism and the ideals that define us as a people and make our nation special,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement.

There’s no nuance in those statements, no need to read between the lines. These Republicans think the president did a bad job being president in the midst of a violent, fraught crisis. Their criticism carries extra heft when you consider that these lawmakers mostly weren’t prodded by reporters, microphones thrust in their faces, to say any of this. Congress is on break, so wherever in the world these lawmakers were, they made the proactive decision Saturday to go on Twitter — or call up their staff to write a statement — and criticize the president.

This moment has echoes of the release of the crude “Access Hollywood” tape in the last month of the 2016 presidential campaign. These senators would probably rather not get into it with the leader of their party, but they feel as if he has done something so egregious that they have no choice but to speak out.

Making their criticism of Trump even more notable: Just a few days ago came a tangible warning of the consequences that criticizing Trump can bring. After Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) wrote a book declaring that his party is in denial about Trump, a pro-Trump donor wrote one of the senator’s primary challengers a $300,000 check.

Not everyone who spoke out Saturday has as much on the line as Flake. Most aren’t even up for reelection in 2018. (Though Gardner is the chairman of Senate Republicans’ reelection committee.)

And liberals shouldn’t get their hopes up that this means Republicans are suddenly on the impeachment path. But the past few months, and especially this weekend, make clear that Republicans in Congress are increasingly comfortable confronting their president in more direct ways.

Two more Senate Republicans oppose health-care bill, leaving it without enough votes to pass

Sean Sullivan and Lenny Bernstein, reporting for the Washington Post:

Two more Senate Republicans have declared their opposition to the latest plan to overhaul the nation’s health-care system, potentially ending a months-long effort to make good on a GOP promise that has defined the party for nearly a decade and been a top priority for President Trump.

Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and Jerry Moran (Kan.) issued statements declaring that they would not vote for the revamped measure. The sudden breaks by Lee, a staunch conservative, and Moran, an ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), rocked the GOP leadership and effectively closed what already had been an increasingly narrow path to passage for the bill.

They joined Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Susan Collins (Maine), who also oppose it. With just 52 seats, Republicans can afford to lose only two votes to pass their proposed rewrite of the Affordable Care Act. All 46 Democrats and two independents are expected to vote against it.

In a pair of tweets Tuesday morning, Trump decried the defections, called for letting the Affordable Care Act “fail” and vowed to keep pushing for a GOP plan.

“We were let down by all of the Democrats and a few Republicans. Most Republicans were loyal, terrific & worked really hard. We will return!” he wrote in the first tweet.

He followed that with: “As I have always said, let ObamaCare fail and then come together and do a great healthcare plan. Stay tuned!”

Republicans, who have made rallying cries against President Barack Obama’s 2010 health-care law a pillar of the party’s identity, may be forced to grapple with the law’s shift from a perennial GOP target to an accepted, even popular, provider of services and funding in many states, which could make further repeal revivals difficult.

Meanwhile, Trump and other Republicans will confront a Republican base that, despite fervent support for the president, still seeks a smaller federal government and fewer regulations.

All of these forces remained vexing factors Monday as senators bailed on the bill. And no evident solution was offered by the White House — which has been limited in its sale of the GOP plan — or from McConnell, for how to bring together a party in which moderates and conservatives are still deeply divided over the scope of federal health-care funding and regulations.

McConnell did announce late Monday that he plans to push for a vote in the coming days anyway, but with a catch: senators would be voting to start debate on the unpopular House-passed bill. McConnell has promised to amend the bill to a pure repeal, but with no guarantee that such an amendment would pass.

“In addition to not repealing all of the Obamacare taxes, it doesn’t go far enough in lowering premiums for middle class families; nor does it create enough free space from the most costly Obamacare regulations,” Lee said in a statement.

Moran said the bill “fails to repeal the Affordable Care Act or address healthcare’s rising costs.”

The two senators timed the release of their statements and made clear that modest tinkering around the edges of the legislation drafted by McConnell would not be enough to meet their demands.

They joined a pair of GOP colleagues in calling for a complete redrawing of the legislation that would take many months, short-circuiting McConnell’s wish to end the debate this month.

The news threw the effort to pass the legislation into turmoil, with additional Republicans weighing in on Twitter about a flawed process that must take a new direction. Trump tweeted that “Republicans should just REPEAL failing ObamaCare now & work on a new Healthcare Plan.”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) called for a “new approach” while Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.) tweeted, “Time for full repeal.” White House aides, meanwhile, said they still plan to press ahead.

Much more here.

President Trump is losing his war with the media

Aaron Blake, writing in the Washington Post:

It’s pretty clear what President Trump is doing by going after the media. He sees someone who is tough on him, with a lower approval rating, and he sets up a contrast. It’s like making yourself look taller by standing next to a short person.

“You have a lower approval rate than Congress,” he needled reporters at last week’s news conference, making clear he had done the math.

Except maybe it’s not really working.

A new poll from Quinnipiac University suggests that while people may be broadly unhappy with the mainstream media, they still think it’s more credible than Trump. The president regularly accuses the press of “fake news,” but people see more “fake news” coming out of his own mouth.

The poll asked who registered voters “trust more to tell you the truth about important issues.” A majority — 52 percent — picked the media. Just 37 percent picked Trump.

The poll did find that registered voters by a narrow margin think the media has treated Trump unfairly, with 50 percent saying they disapproved of the coverage of Trump and 45 percent approving. But voters are even more critical of Trump’s treatment of the media, with 61 percent disapproving and 35 percent approving.

Even 23 percent of Republicans say Trump is mistreating the media, and independents disapprove 59-35.

The poll was conducted Feb. 16 through 21 — beginning the day Trump jousted with the media at a news conference Thursday and continuing through the weekend. Trump called the media “the enemy of the American people” in a tweet Feb. 17, drawing widespread condemnation from journalists and defenders of the free press. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) even compared Trump’s tactic to what dictators do to undermine it.

More here.

Democrats Demand Inquiry of Russian Role in U.S. Affairs; G.O.P. Concern Grows

Via The New York Times:

The stunning resignation of Michael T. Flynn as White House national security adviser has emboldened congressional Democrats to demand a broader investigation into President Trump’s ties to Russia — and compelled a small group of leading Republicans to acknowledge growing concerns over the episode.

“It’s dysfunctional as far as national security is concerned,” Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said of the Trump White House. “Who’s in charge? Who’s in charge? Who’s making policy? Who’s making decisions?”

While many Republican lawmakers remained largely silent on Tuesday about the deep turmoil in Mr. Trump’s national security apparatus, some allowed that further inquiry might be necessary, to a point.

Republican leadership in the Senate said that it was likely that Mr. Flynn would be asked to speak to the Intelligence Committee, which is looking into Russia’s efforts to disrupt the 2016 election, and that his discussions with the Russian ambassador would probably be folded into the review.

But there still appeared to be little momentum for a select committee to investigate Russian interference — an idea that Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, has long resisted.

Few Republicans in Congress lamented Mr. Flynn’s departure from the administration, crediting Mr. Trump for hastening his resignation, despite reports that White House officials knew for weeks that Mr. Flynn had misled colleagues.

“I think it’s pretty obvious why he decided to make the decision he did,” Mr. McConnell said of Mr. Trump.

At the same time, in a striking role reversal, the party long known for its universally hawkish stance toward Russia is now ceding some of that ground to Democrats.

On Tuesday, Democrats tried to make it clear that Mr. Flynn’s resignation must be only the first chapter in the story of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election.

“The crisis here rises above party,” said the Democratic leader in the Senate, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, calling for an “independent, nonpartisan” investigation and insisting that Jeff Sessions, the new attorney general who was active in Mr. Trump’s campaign alongside Mr. Flynn, recuse himself from any review.

* * *

Mr. McCain, one of the most vocal critics of Mr. Trump’s approach and tenor toward Russia, was among the earliest to speak out forcefully on Tuesday.

General Flynn’s resignation also raises further questions about the Trump administration’s intentions toward Vladimir Putin’s Russia, including statements by the president suggesting moral equivalence between the United States and Russia despite its invasion of Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, threats to our NATO allies, and attempted interference in American elections,” Mr. McCain said in a statement.

However, Mr. McCain did not restate his earlier calls for a select committee to investigate Russian interference in the presidential election, which has not been supported by Mr. McConnell, who said any such investigations should be the purview of the relevant Senate committees. Mr. McCain has vowed that his committee will conduct a thorough inquiry and that he had full confidence in Mr. Trump’s defense and homeland security secretaries, calling his partnership with them “excellent.”

Most Republicans pursued similar arguments, deflecting questions about the need for further investigations into the administration’s ties to Russia. But a handful expressed concern about the pace of progress.

“It is frustrating to understand how we’re going to get a full, in-depth look at all the things that have happened,” said Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “I think this episode does heighten the intensity around wanting to make sure that it’s fulsome and that we understand all aspects of what’s occurred.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, identified a possible silver lining.

“I just think it makes it almost impossible for them to lift sanctions now,” said Mr. Graham, who introduced bipartisan legislation last week that would require congressional approval for Mr. Trump to lift sanctions against Russia. “That’s sort of the good news.”

Mr. Graham suggested, gently, that Republicans should take care to avoid any appearance of hypocrisy.

“I think it’s important for us to be informed about the phone call. Did he do it by himself? Did he kind of go rogue or did somebody suggest to him to call the Russians?” he said. “I know we would be upset as Republicans if the Obama administration had done this.”

Trump’s battle with intelligence agencies reality

Jennifer Rubin, writing in the Washington Post:

Trump, if he keeps this up, is heading for a collision with both sides of the aisle in Congress and constant political fencing with the intelligence agencies. If Cabinet nominees support Trump’s pro-Russian stance, they run the risk of getting blocked. And worse, if and when a national security crisis hits, the intelligence community will have every reason to let it be known that the president was out to lunch.

Trump seems determined to prove his critics right — he is not temperamentally or intellectually up to the job. His family and closest advisers had better tell him to get a grip, or his presidency will have a rocky start and may never fully recover.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will begin a hearing on Thursday looking into the Russian attacks on democratic elections. Witnesses will include James R. Clapper Jr., director of national intelligence; Marcel J. Lettre II, undersecretary of defense for intelligence; and Admiral Michael S. Rogers, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency. When sober, experienced officials begin laying out the case against Russia, the public may fully appreciate just how absurd Trump is being. His reflexive defense of Russia will rightly be seen as anything but “America First.”

Just as interesting as the testimony in McCain’s hearing will be the conduct of Republican committee members, who include national security hawks Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who has both military and State Department service. None of these men likely will run interference for Trump. That leaves Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who have tried periodically to play down differences with Trump but whose reputations would suffer considerably if they take up the Putin-Trump line. We will get our first indications as to how determined the Senate is to take on Trump and his advisers’ pro-Putin positioning.

Here, there is no middle ground: It is either obvious that the Russians did it or the entire intelligence community (including Trump favorite FBI Director James Comey) is dangerously incompetent and should be replaced. Unfortunately for the country, if the first is true (the facts are incontrovertible), then it is Trump’s competence and sobriety that become suspect.

More here.

John McCain demands no waterboarding

John McCain is a hero in opposing “enhanced interrogation” techniques that Donald Trump appears to approve.

Via The Washington Post:

A leading Republican voice on national security matters said Saturday he doesn’t care what President-elect Donald Trump says, the United States will not reinstate waterboarding.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said at the Halifax International Security Forum that any attempt to bring back harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, which simulates drowning, would quickly be challenged in court.

“I don’t give a damn what the president of the United States wants to do or anybody else wants to do. We will not waterboard. We will not do it,” McCain said to applause during a panel discussion.

McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, said extreme interrogation techniques are banned under U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions.

During the campaign, Trump said he would push to change laws that prohibit waterboarding, which was used against suspected terrorists during the George W. Bush administration.

McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, said waterboarding doesn’t work and makes it hard for the U.S. to claim moral superiority.

“What does it say about America if we’re going to inflict torture on people,” he said.

Political quote of the day 2

If Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket, here in Arizona, with over 30 percent of the vote being the Hispanic vote, no doubt that this may be the race of my life. If you listen or watch Hispanic media in the state and in the country, you will see that it is all anti-Trump. The Hispanic community is roused and angry in a way that I’ve never seen in 30 years.

John McCain. Boo-hoo for McCain. He has railed against Hispanic for years.

Trump questioner claims Obama is a Muslim; Trump doesn’t dispute

Check out Trump’s response to a voter who claims that Obama is not a US citizen and is an Arab or Muslim.

Trump was very active in the so-called “truther” movement that claimed that Obama was not a citizen. However, compare the video above to the reaction of John McCain dealing with a voter making the same claims.

Trump is truly a dishonorable man, whereas McCain has the dignity to tell the truth.

Who could have possibly seen this coming?

The Pew Research Center is out with the results of a new poll that shows a substantial drop in the favorability rating of the Republican Party.

The Republican Party’s image has grown more negative over the first half of this year. Currently, 32% have a favorable impression of the Republican Party, while 60% have an unfavorable view. Favorable views of the GOP have fallen nine percentage points since January. The Democratic Party continues to have mixed ratings (48% favorable, 47% unfavorable).

The Democratic Party has often held an edge over the GOP in favorability in recent years, but its advantage had narrowed following the Republicans’ midterm victory last fall. Today, the gap is as wide as it has been in more than two years.

Republicans, in particular, are now more critical of their own party than they were a few months ago. About two-thirds (68%) express a favorable opinion of their party, the lowest share in more than two years. Six months ago, 86% of Republicans viewed the GOP positively.

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The GOP, with the help from the Tea Partiers and Donald Trump, are going to have to face the party “crazies,” as John McCain calls them.

Beware of Hillary

Hillary Clinton sat down for an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic a couple of days ago. During the interview she repeatedly attacked the foreign policy expertise of President Obama and, keeping with her long-standing willingness to favor military action (see, e.g., her vote in favor of the Iraq war), she claimed:

Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.

In my view, the decision to launch the Iraq war was clearly “stupid stuff” that was hyped and lied about, and cost this country trillions of dollars and thousands of deaths. She was wrong in her position on that war and she remains wrong.

I agree with Ezra Klein’s take on her:

There is a pattern that has emerged in almost every recent interview Clinton has given: liberals walk away unnerved. She bumbled through a discussion of gay marriage with Terry Gross. She’s dodged questions about the Keystone XL pipeline. She’s had a lot of trouble discussing income inequality. I initially chalked some of this up to political rust. I am quickly revising that opinion.

I particularly like this take by Maureen Dowd in today’s New York Times:

… Hillary Clinton was one of the 29 Democratic senators who voted to authorize that baloney war [in Iraq].

The woman who always does her homework, the woman who resigned as president of Wellesley College’s Young Republicans over the Vietnam War, made that vote without even bothering to read the National Intelligence Estimate with its skimpy evidence.

It was obvious in real time that the Bush crew was arbitrarily switching countries, blaming 9/11 on Saddam so they’d get more vivid vengeance targets and a chance to shake up the Middle East chessboard, and that officials were shamelessly making up the threat as they went along. For me to believe that Hillary would be a good president, I would need to feel that she had learned something from that deadly, globe-shattering vote — a calculated attempt to be tough and show that, as a Democratic woman, she was not afraid to use power.

Yet, she’s still at it.

With the diplomatic finesse of a wrecking ball, the former diplomat gave an interview to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, a hawk, in a calculated attempt to be tough and show that, as a Democratic woman, she’s not afraid to use power.

Channeling her pal John McCain, she took a cheap shot at President Obama when his approval rating on foreign policy had dropped to 36 percent, calling him a wimp just as he was preparing to order airstrikes against ISIS.

So count me out of the Hillary camp for 2016. She is a hawk who, on foreign policy, takes positions not dissimilar to John McCain. No thanks.