Top Russian Officials Discussed How to Influence Trump Aides Last Summer

Matthew Rosenberg, Adam Goldman, and Matt Apuzzo, reporting in the New York Times.

American spies collected information last summer revealing that senior Russian intelligence and political officials were discussing how to exert influence over Donald J. Trump through his advisers, according to three current and former American officials familiar with the intelligence.

The conversations focused on Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman at the time, and Michael T. Flynn, a retired general who was advising Mr. Trump, the officials said. Both men had indirect ties to Russian officials, who appeared confident that each could be used to help shape Mr. Trump’s opinions on Russia.

Some Russians boasted about how well they knew Mr. Flynn. Others discussed leveraging their ties to Viktor F. Yanukovych, the deposed president of Ukraine living in exile in Russia, who at one time had worked closely with Mr. Manafort.

The intelligence was among the clues — which also included information about direct communications between Mr. Trump’s advisers and Russian officials — that American officials received last year as they began investigating Russian attempts to disrupt the election and whether any of Mr. Trump’s associates were assisting Moscow in the effort. Details of the conversations, some of which have not been previously reported, add to an increasing understanding of the alarm inside the American government last year about the Russian disruption campaign.

The information collected last summer was considered credible enough for intelligence agencies to pass to the F.B.I., which during that period opened a counterintelligence investigation that is continuing. It is unclear, however, whether Russian officials actually tried to directly influence Mr. Manafort and Mr. Flynn. Both have denied any collusion with the Russian government on the campaign to disrupt the election.

John O. Brennan, the former director of the C.I.A., testified Tuesday about a tense period last year when he came to believe that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was trying to steer the outcome of the election. He said he saw intelligence suggesting that Russia wanted to use Trump campaign officials, wittingly or not, to help in that effort. He spoke vaguely about contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials, without giving names, saying they “raised questions in my mind about whether Russia was able to gain the cooperation of those individuals.”

Whether the Russians worked directly with any Trump advisers is one of the central questions that federal investigators, now led by Robert S. Mueller III, the newly appointed special counsel, are seeking to answer. President Trump, for his part, has dismissed talk of Russian interference in the election as “fake news,” insisting there was no contact between his campaign and Russian officials.

“If there ever was any effort by Russians to influence me, I was unaware, and they would have failed,” Mr. Manafort said in a statement. “I did not collude with the Russians to influence the elections.”

The White House, F.B.I. and C.I.A. declined to comment. Mr. Flynn’s lawyer did not respond to an email seeking comment.

The current and former officials agreed to discuss the intelligence only on the condition of anonymity because much of it remains highly classified, and they could be prosecuted for disclosing it.

Last week, CNN reported about intercepted phone calls during which Russian officials were bragging about ties to Mr. Flynn and discussing ways to wield influence over him.

In his congressional testimony, Mr. Brennan discussed the broad outlines of the intelligence, and his disclosures backed up the accounts of the information provided by the current and former officials.

“I was convinced in the summer that the Russians were trying to interfere in the election. And they were very aggressive,” Mr. Brennan said. Still, he said, even at the end of the Obama administration he had “unresolved questions in my mind as to whether or not the Russians had been successful in getting U.S. persons, involved in the campaign or not, to work on their behalf again either in a witting or unwitting fashion.”

Mr. Brennan’s testimony offered the fullest public account to date of how American intelligence agencies first came to fear that Mr. Trump’s campaign might be aiding Russia’s attack on the election.

By early summer, American intelligence officials already were fairly certain that it was Russian hackers who had stolen tens of thousands of emails from the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. That in itself was not viewed as particularly extraordinary by the Americans — foreign spies had hacked previous campaigns, and the United States does the same in elections around the world, officials said. The view on the inside was that collecting information, even through hacking, is what spies do.

But the concerns began to grow when intelligence began trickling in about Russian officials weighing whether they should release stolen emails and other information to shape American opinion — to, in essence, weaponize the materials stolen by hackers.

An unclassified report by American intelligence agencies released in January stated that Mr. Putin “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.”

Before taking the helm of the Trump campaign last May, Mr. Manafort worked for more than a decade for Russian-leaning political organizations and people in Ukraine, including Mr. Yanukovych, the former president. Mr. Yanukovych was a close ally of Mr. Putin.

Mr. Manafort’s links to Ukraine led to his departure from the Trump campaign in August, after his name surfaced in secret ledgers showing millions in undisclosed payments from Mr. Yanukovych’s political party.

Russia views Ukraine as a buffer against the eastward expansion of NATO, and has supported separatists in their yearslong fight against the struggling democratic government in Kiev.

Mr. Flynn’s ties to Russian officials stretch back to his time at the Defense Intelligence Agency, which he led from 2012 to 2014. There, he began pressing for the United States to cultivate Russia as an ally in the fight against Islamist militants, and even spent a day in Moscow at the headquarters of the G.R.U., the Russian military intelligence service, in 2013.

He continued to insist that Russia could be an ally even after Moscow’s seizure of Crimea the following year, and Obama administration officials have said that contributed to their decision to push him out of the D.I.A.

But in private life, Mr. Flynn cultivated even closer ties to Russia. In 2015, he earned more than $65,000 from companies linked to Russia, including a cargo airline implicated in a bribery scheme involving Russian officials at the United Nations, and an American branch of a cybersecurity firm believed to have ties to Russia’s intelligence services.

The biggest payment, though, came from RT, the Kremlin-financed news network. It paid Mr. Flynn $45,000 to give a speech in Moscow, where he also attended the network’s lavish anniversary dinner. There, he was photographed sitting next to Mr. Putin.

A senior lawmaker said on Monday that Mr. Flynn misled Pentagon investigators about how he was paid for the Moscow trip. He also failed to disclose the source of that income on a security form he was required to complete before joining the White House, according to congressional investigators.

American officials have also said there were multiple telephone calls between Mr. Flynn and Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, on Dec. 29, beginning shortly after Mr. Kislyak was summoned to the State Department and informed that, in retaliation for Russian election meddling, the United States was expelling 35 people suspected of being Russian intelligence operatives and imposing other sanctions.

American intelligence agencies routinely tap the phones of Russian diplomats, and transcripts of the calls showed that Mr. Flynn urged the Russians not to respond, saying relations would improve once Mr. Trump was in office, officials have said.

But after misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of the calls, Mr. Flynn was fired as national security adviser after a tumultuous 25 days in office.

Trump’s First Legislative Effort Fails as G.O.P. Pulls Bill to Repeal Obamacare

Via The New York Times:

House Republican leaders, facing a revolt among conservatives and moderates in their ranks, pulled legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act from consideration on the House floor Friday afternoon in a humiliating defeat for President Trump on the first legislative showdown of his presidency.

Paul D. Ryan, the House speaker, rushed to the White House shortly after noon to tell Mr. Trump he did not have the votes for a repeal bill that had been promised for seven years — since the day President Barack Obama signed his landmark health care act into law.

Mr. Trump, in a telephone interview moments after the bill was pulled, blamed Democrats and predicted that they would seek a deal within a year after, he asserted, “Obamacare explodes” because of higher premiums. The president said he did not fault Mr. Ryan and said that he was pleased to move past his first legislative fight. He maintained that he was merely going along with the House bill.

But the effort to win passage was hardly kept secret. Vice President Mike Pence and Tom Price, the health secretary, rushed to Capitol Hill for a late appeal to House conservatives, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.

“You can’t pretend and say this is a win for us,” said Representative Mark Walker, Republican of North Carolina, who conceded it was a “good moment” for Democrats.

“Probably that champagne that wasn’t popped back in November may be utilized this evening,” he said.

At 3:30 p.m., Mr. Ryan called Republicans into a closed-door meeting to deliver the news that the bill would be pulled, with no plans to try again. The meeting lasted five minutes.

“We’re going to go home and spend time with our families and time with our constituents, and one day I hope we can eventually repeal,” said Representative Chuck Fleischmann, Republican of Tennessee.

The Republican bill would have replaced the Affordable Care Act, known informally as Obamacare, which mandated that almost everyone have health insurance, with a system of age-based tax credits to purchase health insurance plans.

But it never won over conservatives who wanted a far more thorough eradication of the Affordable Care Act. Nor did it have the backing of more moderate Republicans who were anxiously aware of the Congressional Budget Office’s assessment that the bill would leave 24 million more Americans without insurance.

With the House’s most hard-line conservatives holding fast against it, the bill’s support collapsed Friday after more rank-and-file Republicans came out in opposition, including Representatives Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, the soft-spoken chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Barbara Comstock of Virginia, whose suburban Washington district went handily for the Democrat nominee, Hillary Clinton, in November.

“Seven years after enactment of Obamacare, I wanted to support legislation that made positive changes to rescue health care in America,” Mr. Frelinghuysen wrote in a statement. “Unfortunately, the legislation before the House today is currently unacceptable as it would place significant new costs and barriers to care on my constituents in New Jersey.”

In the end, Republican leaders doomed the bill by agreeing to eliminate federal standards for the minimum benefits that must be provided by certain health insurance policies.

“This provision is so cartoonishly malicious that I can picture someone twirling their mustache as they drafted it in their secret capitol lair last night,” said Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts. “This backroom deal will kill the requirement for insurance companies to offer essential health benefits such as emergency services, maternity care, mental health care, substance addiction treatment, pediatric services, prescription drugs and many other basic essential services.”

Defeat of the bill could be a catalyst if it forces Republicans and Democrats to work together to improve the Affordable Care Act, which virtually every member of Congress believes needs repair. Democrats have been saying for weeks that they want to work with Republicans on such changes, but first, they said, Republicans had to abandon their drive to repeal the law.

Much more here.

G.O.P.’s Health Care Tightrope Winds Through the Blue-Collar Midwest

Via The New York Times:

James Waltimire, a police officer on unpaid medical leave, has been going to the hospital in this small city twice a week for physical therapy after leg surgery, all of it paid for by Medicaid.

Mr. Waltimire, 54, was able to sign up for the government health insurance program last year because Ohio expanded it to cover more than 700,000 low-income adults under the Affordable Care Act. He voted for President Trump — in part because of Mr. Trump’s support for law enforcement — but is now worried about the Republican plan to effectively end the Medicaid expansion through legislation to repeal the health care law.

“Originally the president said he wasn’t going to do nothing to Medicaid,” Mr. Waltimire said the other day after a rehab session. “Now they say he wants to take $880 billion out of Medicaid. That’s going to affect a lot of people who can’t afford to get insurance.”

As Republicans in Washington grapple with how to meet their promise of undoing the greatest expansion of health care coverage since the Great Society, they are struggling with what may be an irreconcilable problem: bridging the vast gulf between the expectations of blue-collar voters like Mr. Waltimire who propelled Mr. Trump to the presidency, and longstanding party orthodoxy that it is not the federal government’s role to provide benefits to a wide swath of society.

If they push forward the House-drafted health bill, which could come to a vote as early as this coming week, Republicans may honor their vow to repeal what they derided as Obamacare, but also risk doing disproportionate harm to the older, working-class white voters who are increasingly vital to their electoral coalition.

Many of those voters live in small Midwestern cities like Defiance and neighboring Bryan, home of a candy company that makes Dum Dum lollipops but has moved many of its jobs to Mexico. Though unemployment is low in the region, where farmland stretches for miles between towns, the slow erosion of manufacturing has taken a toll, and “what’s left in our communities are lower-paying jobs,” said Dr. Neeraj Kanwal, the president of Defiance Regional Hospital.

The region has voted Republican in presidential contests for decades, but its support for Mr. Trump — he took 64 percent of the vote in Defiance County and an even larger share in most of the surrounding counties — was more resounding than for any candidate since Ronald Reagan. Yet many people here tend to have conflicting values that make repeal of the health law appealing on its face but ultimately hard to swallow.

“People in this community are very conservative. They struggle with the federal budget deficit, and they like the idea of personal responsibility,” said Phil Ennen, the president and chief executive of Community Hospitals and Wellness Centers, which has a 75-bed hospital in Bryan. “But at the same time, we have a lot of friends and family and neighbors who just don’t have a lot going for them. There is a population out there that needs Medicaid. That’s the dilemma.”

It is a daunting paradox for a party that, at least in theory, was once unified around a belief that Washington should be tamed, not empowered. But by winning the White House under the banner of economic nationalism, and carrying a series of Democratic-leaning Rust Belt states, Mr. Trump has left his adopted party struggling to come to terms with the reality of who are now voting for Republicans — and what they expect from their government.

Nearly a million Ohio residents gained coverage under the health care act, either through expanded Medicaid or via the new marketplaces created by the law.

The governor, John Kasich, who has become one of his party’s leading pragmatists, was one of several Republican governors who carried out the Medicaid expansion. Late this past week, he joined some of them in a letter to the congressional leadership requesting that the new health care bill be changed so that the Medicaid expansion is not ended entirely. The state’s Republican senator, Rob Portman, has been among the most outspoken Republican lawmakers expressing concern over any attempt to quickly end the expansion. But the Republican congressman who represents Defiance and the surrounding area, Bob Latta, is an ally of the House leadership and has supported the replacement bill.

Much more here.

The GOP has backed itself into a corner and really has no where to go. Many of Trump’s backers are just coming to realize that they may not be able to secure healthcare if the GOP healthcare plans proceed. This should be very interesting to watch.

Trump’s claim about Obama wiretapping him is indefensible. So his aides aren’t even defending it.

Aaron Blake, reporting for the Washington Post:

White House press secretary Sean Spicer issued a statement Sunday calling for an investigation into President Trump’s allegation — without evidence — that his predecessor in the White House, Barack Obama, wiretapped him.

And then Spicer concluded it by saying that the White House would offer no further comment. That included, apparently, any comment actually substantiating Trump’s claim.

But shortly thereafter, another White House spokesman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, did comment further. And she showed exactly why Spicer didn’t really want to talk about this.

During an at-times-painful interview with ABC’s Martha Raddatz, Huckabee Sanders repeatedly suggested that Trump’s allegation was worth looking into but declined to vouch for it. Raddatz pointed this out repeatedly, and Huckabee Sanders responded by saying “if this happened,” “if this took place,” “if it did” and “let’s find out.”

Here’s a snippet, with Huckabee Sanders’s equivocations in bold:

RADDATZ: Was the principal source the Breitbart story, which links to the New York Times? But the New York Times doesn’t say anything definitive. Donald Trump does. There is nothing equivocating about what he says. “I just found out that Obama had my wires tapped.” That’s not “look into something.” He says it happened.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look, I think the bigger thing is you guys are always telling us to take the media seriously. Well, we are today. We’re taking the reports that places like the New York Times, Fox News, BBC, multiple outlets have reported this. All we’re saying is, let’s take a closer look. Let’s look into this. If this happened, if this is accurate, this is the biggest overreach and the biggest scandal.

RADDATZ: The president of the United States is accusing the former president of wiretapping him.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think that this is, again, something that if this happened, Martha …

RADDATZ: “If,” “if,” “if,” “if.”

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I agree.

RADDTAZ: Why is the president saying it did happen?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look, I think he’s going off of information that he’s seen that has led him to believe that this is a very real potential. And if it is, this is the greatest overreach and the greatest abuse of power that, I think, we have ever seen and a huge attack on democracy itself. And the American people have a right to know if this took place.

RADDATZ: Okay. Let me just say one more time. The president said, “I bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October.” So the president believes it is true?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I would say that his tweet speaks for itself there.

This is a familiar dance from the White House. Trump sees a piece of information from a less-than-reputable news source that fits into his conspiracy theory-oriented worldview. He then states it as fact to rile up his supporters and cast himself as the victim of an effort to undermine him. Then his spokesmen go out there and don’t really vouch for him but say what he said should be investigated.

The exact thing happened with Trump’s allegations that millions of illegal votes were cast for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign: Trump drops a bomb, offers no proof and then leaves it to those around him to investigate it. And, in this case, Congress is in the unhappy position of possibly having to fold this claim into its existing Russia investigations, while the White House attempts to wash its hands of Trump’s conspiracy theory-mongering.

More here.

Barring the White House Press Corps From the White House

Via The New York Times Editorial Board:

It’s tempting to take Friday’s petty decision by the Trump White House to bar certain news organizations from a briefing — something no administration of either party has ever done — as a backhanded compliment to the reporters whose honest work provoked the president’s latest foot-stamping tantrum.

It is certainly that. And in itself it is no huge blow to the republic. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, chose to bar The New York Times, CNN, Politico, Buzzfeed News and The Los Angeles Times, but other trustworthy news organizations were nevertheless in the room, and they can be relied upon to accurately report what they learned.

Yet the move was also an unmistakable insult to democratic ideals. Don’t just take our word for it — take Mr. Spicer’s. In December, he told Politico that the Trump White House would never ban a news outlet. “Conservative, liberal or otherwise, I think that’s what makes a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship,” he said.

Huh. Not during Watergate, Iran-contra, the Monica Lewinsky affair or any number of other scandals or crises has a president of either party ever barred an accredited news organization from a White House briefing. Some presidents may have longed to punish particular news organizations or reporters, but aides have generally found ways to protect their bosses from such self-defeating moves, fearing that such vindictiveness would just make their bosses look small.

Mr. Trump’s inexperienced aides, however, seem too frightened to argue with their volatile boss. Mr. Spicer’s hypocrisy came after another wild rant against the news media by Mr. Trump, who during an appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday again accused reporters of lying and fabricating stories — including stories that members of his own administration helped spread. “They say that we can’t criticize their dishonest coverage because of the First Amendment, you know, they always bring up the First Amendment,” he said.

That First Amendment can be inconvenient for anyone longing for power without scrutiny. Mr. Trump might want to brush up on what it means, and get used to it.

Contradicting Trump on Russia: Russian Officials

Matthew Rosenberg, writing in the New York Times:

For months, President Trump and his aides have insisted that they had no contact with Russian officials during the presidential campaign, a denial Mr. Trump repeated last week.

“I have nothing to do with Russia,” he told reporters on Thursday. “To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does.”

The denial stands at odds with statements by Russian officials, who have at least twice acknowledged contacts with aides to Mr. Trump before the election.

It is not uncommon for a presidential campaign to speak to foreign officials, which makes the dispute particularly unusual. At the same time, any contacts would have taken place during a period when American intelligence agencies believe the Russian government was trying to disrupt the election with a campaign of computer hacking.

The dispute began two days after the Nov. 8 election, when Sergei A. Ryabkov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, said his government had maintained contacts with members of Mr. Trump’s “immediate entourage” during the campaign.

“I cannot say that all, but a number of them maintained contacts with Russian representatives,” Mr. Ryabkov said during an interview with the Interfax news agency.

Mr. Ryabkov’s comments were met with a swift denial from Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Mr. Trump and now a member of the White House press team.

More recently, Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Sergey I. Kislyak, told The Washington Post that he had communicated frequently during the campaign with Michael T. Flynn, a close campaign adviser to Mr. Trump who became the president’s national security adviser before resigning from the position last week.

“It’s something all diplomats do,” The Post quoted Mr. Kislyak as saying, though he refused to say what subjects they discussed.

Mr. Trump and his aides denied any contacts occurred during the campaign.

“This is a nonstory because to the best of our knowledge, no contacts took place, so it’s hard to make a comment on something that never happened,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a White House spokeswoman, said on Monday.

The Russian government did not respond to a message over the weekend seeking comment.

Separately, The New York Times and other news outlets reported last week that Trump campaign advisers and other associates of Mr. Trump’s had repeated contacts last year with Russian intelligence officials. Those reports, citing anonymous current and former American government officials, were vigorously denied by the White House.

On Thursday, Mr. Trump made clear his annoyance when questioned about contacts with Russia.

“How many times do I have to answer this question? Russia is a ruse. I have nothing to do with Russia,” he said during a White House news conference.

More here.

A Party to the Russian Connection

Evan McMullin, writing in the New York Times:

President Trump’s disturbing Russian connections present an acute danger to American national security. According to reports this week, Mr. Trump’s team maintained frequent contact with Russian officials, including senior intelligence officers, during the campaign. This led to concerns about possible collusion with one of America’s principal strategic adversaries as it tried to influence the election in Mr. Trump’s favor. On Monday, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, was forced to resign after details of his communications with the Russian ambassador emerged.

Republican leaders in Congress now bear the most responsibility for holding the president accountable and protecting the nation. They can’t say they didn’t see the Russian interference coming. They knew all along.

Early in 2015, senior Republican congressional leaders visited Ukraine and returned full of praise for its fight for independence in spite of Russia’s efforts to destabilize the country and annex some of its regions. And in June, coincidentally just before Mr. Trump announced his campaign for the Republican nomination, they met with Ukraine’s prime minister in Washington — one of many meetings I attended as a senior aide to the House Republican Conference.

As the presidential race wore on, some of those leaders began to see parallels between Russia’s disinformation operations in Ukraine and Europe and its activities in the United States. They were alarmed by the Kremlin-backed cable network RT America, which was running stories intended, they judged, to undermine Americans’ trust in democratic institutions and promote Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Deeply unsettled, the leaders discussed these concerns privately on several occasions I witnessed.

Some also questioned Mr. Trump’s attacks on Hispanics, Muslims, women and people with disabilities, or his positions on entitlement reform, discretionary spending and national security. Others were unnerved by his volatile temperament, egoism and authoritarian tendencies. In public, they occasionally offered light criticism of Mr. Trump’s most objectionable comments, but mostly remained silent for fear of antagonizing his supporters.

As Mr. Trump campaigned, his consistent affection for Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, and apparent defense of Russian intervention in Ukraine raised further concerns. In December 2015, on “Morning Joe,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Putin, “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.” He also equated Mr. Putin’s murderous regime with the American government: “Our country does plenty of killing, also” — a remark he has repeated as president.

Suspect public comments like these led one senior Republican leader to dolefully inform his peers that he thought Mr. Trump was on the Kremlin’s payroll, suggesting that Mr. Trump had been compromised by Russian intelligence. Other leaders were surprised by their colleague’s frank assessment, but did not dispute it.

As Mr. Trump prevailed in state after state, the leaders came to terms with the possibility, then the likelihood, that he would win the nomination. During the process, most leaders had not endorsed a candidate and hoped that Mr. Trump would be stopped. By early May 2016, however, his victory appeared a fait accompli, placing them in an unenviable position. As senior leaders, opposing the outcome of the party contest was unthinkable.

Eventually, one by one, they all committed to supporting Mr. Trump, often simply saying they would support the nominee, conspicuously avoiding uttering Mr. Trump’s name. In a fascinating political metamorphosis, some even found reason to be excited about Mr. Trump.

* * *

Now the leaders’ worst fears seem validated. Mr. Flynn has become the third Trump team member to step down over Russia-related issues, following the campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the foreign policy adviser Carter Page.

This plotline is unlikely to improve of its own accord, and America’s security is now at stake. For Republican leaders in Congress, there is no more room for cognitive dissonance. Instead, it is urgent that they recommit to patriotic prudence. They should demand that Attorney General Jeff Sessions appoint an independent special counsel to investigate Russia’s assault on American democracy and Mr. Trump’s possible collusion with the Kremlin.

Much more here.

G.O.P.’s Grand Visions for Congress Now Look Like a Mirage

Jennifer Steinhauer, writing in the New York Times:

Congressional Republicans, who craved unified control of the government to secure their aggressive conservative agenda, have instead found themselves on a legislative elliptical trainer, gliding toward nowhere.

After moving to start rolling back the Affordable Care Act just days after President Trump was sworn in last month, Republican lawmakers and Mr. Trump have yet to deliver on any of the sweeping legislation they promised. Efforts to come up with a replacement for the health care lawhave been stymied by disagreements among Republicans about how to proceed. The same is true for a proposed overhaul of the tax code.

The large infrastructure bill that both Democrats and Mr. Trump were eager to pursue has barely been mentioned, other than a very general hearing to discuss well-documented needs for infrastructure improvements. Even a simple emergency spending bill that the Trump administration promised weeks ago — which was expected to include a proposal for his wall on the Mexican border — has not materialized, leaving appropriators idle and checking Twitter.

At this point in Barack Obama’s presidency, when Democrats controlled Washington, Congress had passed a stimulus bill totaling nearly $1 trillion to address the financial crisis, approved a measure preventing pay discrimination, expanded a children’s health insurance program, and begun laying the groundwork for major health care and financial regulation bills. President George W. Bush came into office with a congressional blueprint for his signature education act, No Child Left Behind.

But in the 115th Congress, the Senate has done little more than struggle to confirm Mr. Trump’s nominees, and Republicans ultimately helped force his choice for labor secretary, Andrew F. Puzder, to withdraw from consideration on Wednesday in the face of unified Democratic opposition.

The House has spent most of its time picking off a series of deregulation measures, like overturning a rule intended to protect surface water from mining operations. For his part, Mr. Trump has relied mostly on executive orders to advance policies.

The inactivity stems from a lack of clear policy guidance — and, just as often, contradictory messages — from the Trump administration, which does not appear to have spent the campaign and transition periods forming a legislative wish list. Democrats have also led efforts to slow the confirmation of nominees to Mr. Trump’s cabinet who might otherwise be leading the charge.

“When you spend a lot of time talking about policy and debating policy in the presidential campaign, it is far easier to be specific about legislation when you get into office,” said Austan Goolsbee, who served as the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration. “President Trump spent the campaign fleshing out nothing in detail, so it’s not really a surprise that they can’t even agree on priorities, much less on actual legislative detail.”

House Republicans say slow and steady was always the plan. “We are 100 percent on pace with the 200-day plan we presented to President Trump and to members at our retreat,” Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker Paul D. Ryan, wrote in an email. “Budget first (check), then regs (check), then Obamacare bill (in process and on schedule), and then tax (after Obamacare).”

But even Democrats, who had been gearing up for fights and compromises on health care, a tax overhaul, infrastructure and other policy matters, are bored and frustrated. “It’s painful for someone like me who was excited about infrastructure and tax reform,” said Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut. “It seems like the administration and the majority are nowhere.”

Much more here.

Maureen Dowd on Donald Trump

Maureen Dowd, writing in the New York Times:

Listen up, haters.

The brief reign of Donald the First has been completely head-spinningly nuts so far. But let’s stay calm and look for the silver lining, or in this case, the garishly gold lining.

Donald Trump has indeed already made some of America Great Again.

Just not the aspects he intended.

He has breathed new zest into a wide range of things: feminism, liberalism, student activism, newspapers, cable news, protesters, bartenders, shrinks, Twitter, the A.C.L.U., “S.N.L.,” town halls, George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Hannah Arendt, Stephen Colbert, Nordstrom, the Federalist Papers, separation of powers, division of church and state, athletes and coaches taking political stands and Frederick Douglass.

As Trump blusters about repealing Obamacare, many Americans have come to appreciate the benefits of the law more.

Lena Dunham credited the “soul-crushing pain and devastation and hopelessness” of Trump with helping her get a svelte new figure.

Trump may even have pierced the millennial malaise, as we see more millennials showing interest in running for office.

Every time our daft new president tweets about the “failing” New York Times, our digital subscriptions and stock price jump, driven by readers eager for help negotiating the disorienting Trumpeana Oceana Upside Down dimension rife with gaslighting, trolling, leaking, lying and conflicts.

Similarly, whenever Trump rants about Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of him and tweets that “Saturday Night Live” is “not funny,” “always a complete hit job” and “really bad television!,” the show’s ratings go up. They’re now at a 20-year high.

Trump was roundly mocked for turning his Supreme Court announcement into an episode of “The Bachelor,” but it must be said that the president has more talent for devising cliffhangers than anyone since Charles Dickens.

Administration officials told The Times that the White House even got Judge Thomas Hardiman, the runner-up to Neil Gorsuch, to play along and help make the final rose ceremony suspenseful by feinting a drive toward Washington. It was unbelievably schlocky, and yet the end result was a national civics lesson, with a whopping 33 million-plus people tuning in.

Much more here.

Trump Clashes Early With Courts, Portending Years of Legal Battles

Peter Baker, writing in The New York Times:

President Trump is barreling into a confrontation with the courts barely two weeks after taking office, foreshadowing years of legal battles as an administration determined to disrupt the existing order presses the boundaries of executive power.

Lawyers for the administration were ordered to submit a brief on Monday defending Mr. Trump’s order temporarily banning refugees from around the world and all visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. An appeals court in California refused on Sunday to reinstate the ban after a lower court blocked it.

As people from the countries targeted by Mr. Trump struggled to make their way to the United States while they could, the president for the second day in a row expressed rage at the judge in the case, this time accusing him of endangering national security. Vice President Mike Pence defended the president’s tone, but lawyers and lawmakers of both parties said Mr. Trump’s comments reflected a lack of respect for the constitutional system of checks and balances.

Late in the day, Mr. Trump took to Twitter to pre-emptively blame the judge and the judiciary for what the president suggested would be a future terrorist attack.

“Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril,” Mr. Trump wrote, a day after referring to the “so-called judge” in the case. “If something happens blame him and court system.”

Even before the latest post, Republicans joined Democrats in chiding him. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said it was “best not to single out judges.”

“We all get disappointed from time to time,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I think it is best to avoid criticizing judges individually.”

The White House offered no evidence for Mr. Trump’s suggestion that potential terrorists would now pour over the border because of the judge’s order. Since Sept. 11, 2001, no American has been killed in a terrorist attack on American soil by anyone who immigrated from any of the seven countries named in Mr. Trump’s order.

More here.

Trump and Staff Rethink Tactics After Stumbles

Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman, writing in the New York Times:

President Trump loves to set the day’s narrative at dawn, but the deeper story of his White House is best told at night.

Aides confer in the dark because they cannot figure out how to operate the light switches in the cabinet room. Visitors conclude their meetings and then wander around, testing doorknobs until finding one that leads to an exit. In a darkened, mostly empty West Wing, Mr. Trump’s provocative chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, finishes another 16-hour day planning new lines of attack.

Usually around 6:30 p.m., or sometimes later, Mr. Trump retires upstairs to the residence to recharge, vent and intermittently use Twitter. With his wife, Melania, and young son, Barron, staying in New York, he is almost always by himself, sometimes in the protective presence of his imposing longtime aide and former security chief, Keith Schiller. When Mr. Trump is not watching television in his bathrobe or on his phone reaching out to old campaign hands and advisers, he will sometimes set off to explore the unfamiliar surroundings of his new home.

During his first two dizzying weeks in office, Mr. Trump, an outsider president working with a surprisingly small crew of no more than a half-dozen empowered aides with virtually no familiarity with the workings of the White House or federal government, sent shock waves at home and overseas with a succession of executive orders designed to fulfill campaign promises and taunt foreign leaders.

“We are moving big and we are moving fast,” Mr. Bannon said, when asked about the upheaval of the first two weeks. “We didn’t come here to do small things.”

But one thing has become apparent to both his allies and his opponents: When it comes to governing, speed does not always guarantee success.

The bungled rollout of his executive order barring immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, a flurry of other miscues and embarrassments, and an approval rating lower than that of any comparable first-term president in the history of polling have Mr. Trump and his top staff rethinking an improvisational approach to governing that mirrors his chaotic presidential campaign, administration officials and Trump insiders said.

Chris Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media and an old friend of the president’s, said: “I think, in his mind, the success of this is going to be the poll numbers. If they continue to be weak or go lower, then somebody’s going to have to bear some responsibility for that.”

“I personally think that they’re missing the big picture here,” Mr. Ruddy said of Mr. Trump’s staff. “Now he’s so caught up, the administration is so caught up in turmoil, perceived chaos, that the Democrats smell blood, the protesters, the media smell blood.”

One former staff member likened the aggressive approach of the first two weeks to D-Day, but said the president’s team had stormed the beaches without any plan for a longer war.

Clashes among staff are common in the opening days of every administration, but they have seldom been so public and so pronounced this early. “This is a president who came to Washington vowing to shake up the establishment, and this is what it looks like. It’s going to be a little sloppy, there are going to be conflicts,” said Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s first press secretary.

All this is happening as Mr. Trump, a man of flexible ideology but fixed habits, adjusts to a new job, life and city.

Cloistered in the White House, he now has little access to his fans and supporters — an important source of feedback and validation — and feels increasingly pinched by the pressures of the job and the constant presence of protests, one of the reasons he was forced to scrap a planned trip to Milwaukee last week. For a sense of what is happening outside, he watches cable, both at night and during the day — too much in the eyes of some aides — often offering a bitter play-by-play of critics like CNN’s Don Lemon.

Until the past few days, Mr. Trump was telling his friends and advisers that he believed the opening stages of his presidency were going well. “Did you hear that, this guy thinks it’s been terrible!” Mr. Trump said mockingly to other aides when one dissenting view was voiced last week during a West Wing meeting.

But his opinion has begun to change with a relentless parade of bad headlines.

Mr. Trump got away from the White House this weekend for the first time since his inauguration, spending it in Palm Beach, Fla., at his private club, Mar-a-Lago, posting Twitter messages angrily — and in personal terms — about the federal judge who put a nationwide halt on the travel ban. Mr. Bannon and Reince Priebus, the two clashing power centers, traveled with him.

By then, the president, for whom chains of command and policy minutiae rarely meant much, was demanding that Mr. Priebus begin to put in effect a much more conventional White House protocol that had been taken for granted in previous administrations: From now on, Mr. Trump would be looped in on the drafting of executive orders much earlier in the process.

Another change will be a new set of checks on the previously unfettered power enjoyed by Mr. Bannon and the White House policy director, Stephen Miller, who oversees the implementation of the orders and who received the brunt of the internal and public criticism for the rollout of the travel ban.

Mr. Priebus has told Mr. Trump and Mr. Bannon that the administration needs to rethink its policy and communications operation in the wake of embarrassing revelations that key details of the orders were withheld from agencies, White House staff and Republican congressional leaders like Speaker Paul D. Ryan.

Mr. Priebus has also created a 10-point checklist for the release of any new initiatives that includes signoff from the communications department and the White House staff secretary, Robert Porter, according to several aides familiar with the process.

The entire article is worth a full and careful read.

Immigration Ban Is Unlikely to Reduce Terrorist Threat, Experts Say

Scott Shane, writing in The New York Times:

Rarely does an executive order announce a more straightforward and laudable purpose than the one President Trump signed on Friday: “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.” But the president’s directive is unlikely to significantly reduce the terrorist threat in the United States, which has been a minuscule part of the overall toll of violence since 2001.

Many experts believe the order’s unintended consequences will make the threat worse.

While the order requires the Department of Homeland Security to issue a report within 180 days providing detailed statistics on foreign nationals who commit acts of violence, terrorism researchers have already produced rich and revealing data. For instance, since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, no one has been killed in the United States in a terrorist attack by anyone who emigrated from or whose parents emigrated from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, the seven countries targeted in the order’s 120-day visa ban, according to Charles Kurzman, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina.

Of Muslim Americans involved in violent extremism of any kind — for instance, charged with plotting terrorism or supporting a terrorist group — only 23 percent had family backgrounds in those countries, said Mr. Kurzman, who just published the latest of his annual studies of Muslim Americans and terrorism.

The larger point of experts is that jihadist attacks garner news attention that far outstrips their prevalence in the United States, and the president’s order appears to address not a rational calculation of risks but the visceral fears that terrorists set out to inflame.

There was a random quality to the list of countries: It excluded Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where the founders of Al Qaeda and many other jihadist groups have originated. Also excluded are Pakistan and Afghanistan, where persistent extremism and decades of war have produced militants who have occasionally reached the United States. Notably, perhaps, the list avoided Muslim countries where Mr. Trump has major business ventures.

* * *

By Mr. Kurzman’s count, 123 people have been killed in the United States by Muslim terrorists since the 2001 attacks — out of a total of more than 230,000 killings, by gang members, drug dealers, angry spouses, white supremacists, psychopaths, drunks and people of every description. So the order addresses, at most, one-1,870th of the problem of lethal violence in America. If the toll of Sept. 11 is included, jihadists still account for just over 1 percent of killings.

“My advice to the new administration would be to declare victory,” Mr. Kurzman said. For the average American, he added, “your odds of being victimized by a terrorist attack are infinitesimal.”

* * *

“In my opinion, this is just a huge mistake in terms of counterterrorism cooperation,” said Daniel Benjamin, formerly the State Department’s top counterterrorism official and now a scholar at Dartmouth. “For the life of me, I don’t see why we would want to alienate the Iraqis when they are the ground force against ISIS.”

At home as well, Mr. Benjamin said, the president’s order is likely to prove counterproductive. The jihadist threat in the United States has turned out to be largely homegrown, he said, and the order will encourage precisely the resentments and anxieties on the part of Muslims that fuel, in rare cases, support for the ideology of the Islamic State or Al Qaeda.

“It sends an unmistakable message to the American Muslim community that they are facing discrimination and isolation,” Mr. Benjamin said. That, he said, will “feed the jihadist narrative” that the United States is at war with Islam, potentially encouraging a few more Muslims to plot violence.

Much more here.

Donald Trump and his wall

Via The New York Times:

President Trump’s decision to build a wall along the length of the United States’ southern border with Mexico erupted into a diplomatic standoff on Thursday, leading to the cancellation of a White House visit by Mexico’s president and sharply rising tensions over who would pay for the wall.

With the conflict escalating, Mr. Trump appeared to embrace a proposal by House Republicans that would impose a 20 percent tax on all imported goods. The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, told reporters that the proceeds would be used to pay for the border wall, estimated to cost as much as $20 billion.

But a furious uproar prompted Mr. Spicer to temper his earlier remarks, saying the plan was simply “one idea” that might work to finance the wall. Mr. Spicer said it was not the job of the White House to “roll something out” on tax policy, while Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said the administration was considering “a buffet of options.”

If Mr. Trump does eventually announce his support for the tax plan, it could have a broad impact on the American economy, and its consumers and workers, by sharply increasing the prices of imported goods or reducing profits for the companies that produce them. Other nations could retaliate, prompting a trade war that could hit consumers around the globe.

Retail businesses could see their tax bills surge, said David French of the National Retail Federation, who predicted that those costs would be passed on to consumers. He called the idea “very counter to the way consumers are feeling at the moment.”

If nothing else, the rapid-fire developments showed Mr. Trump that international diplomacy and a top-to-bottom overhaul of the tax code would not be as easy as an announcement before a campaign microphone. The events unfolded after Mr. Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday to strengthen the nation’s deportation force and start construction on a new wall along the border.

Much more here.

Donald Trump repeats lie about the popular vote

Via The New York Times:

President Trump used his first official meeting with congressional leaders on Monday to falsely claim that millions of unauthorized immigrants had robbed him of a popular vote majority, a return to his obsession with the election’s results even as he seeks support for his legislative agenda.

The claim, which he has made before on Twitter, has been judged untrue by numerous fact-checkers. The new president’s willingness to bring it up at a White House reception in the State Dining Room is an indication that he continues to dwell on the implications of his popular vote loss even after assuming power.

Mr. Trump appears to remain concerned that the public will view his victory — and his entire presidency — as illegitimate if he does not repeatedly challenge the idea that Americans were deeply divided about sending him to the White House to succeed President Barack Obama.

Mr. Trump received 304 electoral votes to capture the White House, but he fell almost three million votes short of Hillary Clinton in the popular vote. That reality appears to have bothered him since Election Day, prompting him to repeatedly complain that adversaries were trying to undermine him.

Moving into the White House appears not to have tempered that anxiety. Several people familiar with the closed-door meeting Monday night, who asked to remain anonymous in discussing a private conversation, said Mr. Trump used the opportunity to brag about his victory.

As part of that conversation, Mr. Trump asserted that between three million and five million unauthorized immigrants voted for Mrs. Clinton. That is similar to a Twitter message he posted in late November that said he would have won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

* * *

Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland, who attended the meeting, said that Mr. Trump also talked about the size of the crowd for his Inaugural Address.

“It was a huge crowd, a magnificent crowd. I haven’t seen such a crowd as big as this,” Mr. Hoyer told CNN, quoting Mr. Trump. He added that Mr. Trump did not “spend a lot of time on that, but it was clear that it was still on his mind.”

More here.

Donald Trump is obviously incredibly insecure. A president with that kind of insecurity could be dangerous and react in ways that could be very unpredictable. Hold on to your hats.

Trump at lowest approval rate in the last 40 years

Peter Baker, writing in the New York Times:

In one way at least, President-elect Donald J. Trump has already surpassed all of his recent predecessors. It took Barack Obama 18 months in the White House for his approval rating to slip to 44 percent in Gallup polling, and it took George W. Bush 4½ years to fall that far. Mr. Trump got there before even being sworn in.

Indeed, Mr. Trump will take office on Friday with less popular support than any new president in modern times, according to an array of surveys, a sign that he has failed to rally Americans behind him, beyond the base that helped him win in November. Rather than a unifying moment, his transition to power has seen a continuation of the polarization of the election last year.

Where other presidents used the weeks before their inauguration to put the animosities of the campaign behind them and to try to knit the country together again, Mr. Trump has approached the interregnum as if he were a television wrestling star. He has taken on a civil rights icon, a Hollywood actress, intelligence agencies, defense contractors, European leaders and President Obama. The healing theme common at this stage in the four-year presidential cycle is absent.

“He seems to want to engage with every windmill that he can find, rather than focus on the large aspect of assuming the most important position on earth,” Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said on CNN on Tuesday. “And obviously, apparently, according to the polls, many Americans are not happy with that approach when he has not even assumed the presidency.”

Two polls out on Tuesday — one by CNN and ORC and another by The Washington Post and ABC News — found that just 40 percent of Americans approved of Mr. Trump’s performance heading into the inauguration on Friday. NBC News and The Wall Street Journal put his approval rating at 44 percent, calling it the lowest rating ever for an incoming president.

By comparison, shortly after their inaugurations, Mr. Obama was at 68 percent and Mr. Bush was at 57 percent in Gallup surveys. Both used the time after their initial victories to preach a message of inclusion and to extend a hand to their opposition, even if it did not ultimately last.

More here.

Trump’s support is so low that it is hard to believe he can really ever recover. There are broad gaps in his incoming teams, but he cannot resist offensive, complaining tweets as his favored communications.