How could things get worse for Trump?

Eugene Robinson, writing in the Washington Post:

President Trump is flailing like a man who fears he’s about to go under, and he hasn’t even been in office a full month. His instinct is to flee to the warmth and comfort of his political base — but he will learn that while presidents can run, they can’t hide.

Trump’s administration faces two acute, interlocking crises: serious questions about his campaign’s contacts with official and unofficial representatives of the Russian government, which U.S. intelligence agencies believe made concerted efforts to help Trump win the election; and appalling levels of dysfunction in the White House that make self-inflicted wounds the rule rather than the exception.

The president’s response has been to rant on Twitter and schedule a campaign-style rally Saturday in Florida — both of which may boost Trump’s morale but will do nothing to make his problems go away.

It is unclear whether Trump is trying to fool the nation or fool himself. Witness one of the angry tweets he sent out Thursday morning: “The Democrats had to come up with a story as to why they lost the election, and so badly (306), so they made up a story — RUSSIA. Fake news!”

Let me take a moment to unpack the misinterpretations, distortions and contradictions jammed into those two sentences.

“The Democrats had to come up with a story” refers to Trump’s claim that the Russia allegations are nothing more than a tantrum by Democrats upset that Hillary Clinton did not win as they had expected. That is ridiculous. The Democratic Party is focused on rebuilding at the grass-roots level and finding new leadership. Democrats I’ve spoken to have as much criticism as praise for Clinton and the campaign she ran.

Trump’s phrase “they lost the election, and so badly” ignores the facts. Clinton did comfortably win the popular vote, after all. And Trump’s electoral margin was historically quite modest.

The part about how Democrats “made up a story — RUSSIA” is absurd. It was U.S. intelligence agencies, not the Democratic Party or the Clinton campaign, that made the finding that Russia meddled in our election with the aim of boosting Trump’s prospects. If anything, the chief Democrat at the time — President Barack Obama — reacted too mildly.

And the tweet ends with what has become Trump’s favorite way to dismiss anything he’d rather not hear: “Fake news!” But why would his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, step down over inauthentic news reports? In other tweets Thursday morning, Trump attacked “low-life leakers” in the intelligence community — thus essentially confirming that leaked information about the Russia connection is genuine, not “fake.” Not even a president can have it both ways.

More here.

The Trump brand was built on winning. So what happens when it starts to lose?

Christine Emba, writing in The Washington Post:

The White House is perhaps the best imaginable venue for product placement. But despite the fact that it now commands a presidential seal, the Trump brand seems less attractive than ever.

Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and even discount retailers such as Kmart are dropping daughter Ivanka’s fashion line. Companies such as Uber face backlash for merely giving the impression of being pro-Trump. Professional athletes, those traditional arbiters of cool, are turning their backs: So far, six of the New England Patriots have declined to meet the president, and beloved Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry mockingly described President Trump as an asset — “if you remove the ‘et.’ ”

The “brash business mogul” brand just hasn’t translated well from the campaign trail to leadership of the country. In fact, the move to D.C. seems to have deflated it completely.

Overexposure hasn’t helped. Even under the harsh lights of the campaign, Trump operated under, if not a veil of mystery, at least a level of remove. Watchers certainly saw enough of him to stick in their minds, but the barrage only became unrelenting late in the game.

Today, however, we’re seeing far more of Trump than we would like — and it’s rarely a flattering view. The constant, unnecessary tweets! The manifold White House leaks! The confoundingly public bathrobe discussions! The tweets again!

It’s one thing for a provocateur to make an effort to stay in the public eye: Think of Madonna’s ever-changing looks. But at a certain point — perhaps after the presidency has been achieved, or your 13th studio album — it ceases to impress. Remember when a negative Trump tweet had the power to make a company’s stock drop? His latest swing at Nordstrom did the opposite . Over time consumers have become numb to Trumpisms, or worse, they’ve begun to find them grating.

But there’s another problem more damaging than overexposure: The narrative beneath the Trump brand is crumbling.

A brand is a promise to a customer. On the campaign trail, and throughout his career, Trump built his brand on getting things done that no one else could. Using the element of surprise. Making the best deals. Winning, first and foremost. Improbably, the election bore this story out. But what happens when a brand built on winning starts to lose?

Trump’s first major gambit was his executive order on immigration, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit’s swift ruling against it was an undeniable, and justified, loss. The bluster and bravado of his all-caps response — “SEE YOU IN COURT” — didn’t make that failure any less apparent (in no small part because, well, we did just see him in court, didn’t we?).

While every new administration experiences setbacks, Trump’s unpreparedness and lack of organization clearly contributed to this early defeat and others that have come with it: a lackluster inauguration whose underattendance was only highlighted by flagrant falsehoods about crowd size, a botched raid in Yemen, the resignation of a national security adviser over improper contacts with Russia. These fast-mounting failures set an ominous tone. It’s hard to trust the brand going forward.

But all is not lost. Marketing experts and corporate strategists would soothingly point out that setbacks aren’t necessarily the end of the story. A moment of crisis is an excellent opportunity to pivot — try a brand refresh, if you will. It worked for Burberry in the late ’90s. Why not Trump today?

More here.

A gift and a challenge for Democrats: A restive, active and aggressive base

David Weigel and Karen Tumulty, writing in the Washington Post:

A super PAC formed to reelect Barack Obama in 2012 is driving activists to congressional town halls. Veterans of Bill Clinton’s administration are joining marches and plotting bigger ones for the spring. Democratic senators who had befriended Jeff Sessions in the Senate voted — 47 to 1 — against his nomination for attorney general.

Three weeks into President Trump’s term, the Democratic Party and progressive establishment have almost entirely adopted the demands of a restive, active and aggressive base. They are hopeful that the new activism more closely resembles the tea party movement, which embraced electoral politics, than the Occupy Wall Street movement, which did not.

The pace of the activists, and the runaway-train approach of Trump’s administration, have given them little time to puzzle it out.

“He has a strategy to do so many things that he overwhelms the opposition,” Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) said of Trump, “[but] he’s creating the largest opposition movement I’ve seen in my lifetime in the United States.”

After previous defeats, the modern Democratic Party typically plunged into a discussion between a moderate wing and a liberal wing. George McGovern’s 1972 loss led to an internal party battle against the New Left. After Walter Mondale’s 1984 defeat, a group of moderate strategists formed the Democratic Leadership Council. After the 2004 defeat of John F. Kerry, a new generation of like-minded strategists launched Third Way, with a focus on lost moderate voters.

There is nothing like that in 2017. Democrats, taking cues from their base, have given Trump’s key Cabinet nominees the smallest level of support from an opposition party in history. They have joined and sometimes led protests, organizing more than 70 rallies against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and joining activists at airports to help travelers affected by Trump’s executive orders on immigration and refugees. The scale has even impressed some Republicans.

“The march the day after the inauguration probably exceeded any of the tea party marches,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told The Washington Post in an interview for C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” series. “But like Occupy Wall Street, it’s not real focused, as far as what exactly they want.”

Moderating forces, increasingly, are being held at arm’s length. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), seen as the most potentially endangered senator in the upcoming midterm elections, is derided on social media for meeting with Trump. Manchin was the sole Democratic senator who voted to confirm Sessions for attorney general. Progressive groups protested the very presence of Third Way at the House Democratic retreat in Baltimore. At a briefing with reporters, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) insisted that Third Way was only attending to give a “data analysis” presentation — and denied a well-traveled rumor that progressives had walked out.

“What’s organizing people is that they’re fearing for the country they grew up in,” said Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, which was founded by Clinton administration exiles to emulate the successful think tanks of the right. “People are definitely seeing the purpose of working through the political process to oppose him. . . . It’s a primal scream, but the truth is, since Election Day, it has been growing.”

CAP Action, the political arm of Tanden’s think tank, is one of several progressive and center-left groups urging activists to attend congressional town halls. Elected Democrats, while stopping short of that, have egged on activists in person and on social media. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the youngest member of the party in the Senate, has also led a brusque change of tone in messaging, from defending his colleague Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) from Trump attacks (“As a prosecutor, Dick used to put guys like u in jail”) to mocking the president’s Cabinet picks (‘The chances you will be watching [C-span] are bested only by the chances a grizzly bear walks into your kid’s school today”).

“We lost. Now we fight,” Murphy tweeted after Sessions was confirmed. “Nothing is inevitable. Any anxiety or fear you feel can be cured by political action.”

Less clear is how Democrats will convert political action into electoral results. Much has been said about the failures of 2016 — chief among them the flawed belief that bashing Trump was enough, and the absence of a coherent economic message.

Yet even now, at every level of national Democratic politics, the discussion of how the party can win back voters it lost is subsumed by the argument about how to oppose Trump. The answer is always: as much as possible. And for the moment, that does seem to be engaging a broad, new population of activists. In the race for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, even Thomas Perez, the former secretary of labor viewed skeptically by some supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has said that Democrats should hit Trump “between the eyes with a two-by-four and treat him like Mitch McConnell treated Barack Obama.”

That tone is widespread among Democrats, who were bitter about the rise of the tea party — a combination of grass-roots energy and well-funded conservative organizing — and are enamored with the idea of their own version. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who is term-limited out of office early next year, said that the new energy was manifesting in the recruitment of candidates ahead of schedule — a reversal from previous years when Republican primaries were packed with candidates, while Democrats left some state legislative seats uncontested.

Much more here.

Trump should not demand that the judiciary has no role to play

Via The Washington Post:

“The government does not merely argue that courts owe substantial deference to the immigration and national security policy determinations of the political branches — an uncontroversial principle that is well-grounded in our jurisprudence,” the court’s unsigned opinion said.

“Instead, the government has taken the position that the president’s decisions about immigration policy, particularly when motivated by national security concerns, are unreviewable, even if those actions potentially contravene constitutional rights and protections.”

That, the court said, “runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy.”

Much more here.

Federal appeals court rules 3 to 0 against Trump on travel ban

Via The Washington Post:

A federal appeals panel has maintained the freeze on President Trump’s controversial immigration order, meaning previously barred refugees and citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries can continue entering the United States.

In a unanimous 29-page opinion, three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit flatly rejected the government’s argument that suspension of the order should be lifted immediately for national security reasons, and they forcefully asserted their ability to serve as a check on the president’s power.

The judges wrote that any suggestion that they could not “runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy.”

The judges did not declare outright that the ban was meant to disfavor Muslims — essentially saying it was too early for them to render a judgment on that question. But their ruling is undeniably a blow to the government and means the travel ban will remain off for the foreseeable future.

Trump reacted angrily on Twitter, posting just minutes after the ruling, “SEE YOU IN COURT, THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!” He later said to reporters that the judges had made “a political decision.”

“We have a situation where the security of our country is at stake, and it’s a very, very serious situation, so we look forward, as I just said, to seeing them in court,” he said.

The Justice Department, which was defending the administration’s position, said in a statement it was “reviewing the decision and considering its options.”

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who had sued over the ban, said, “Bottom line, this is a complete victory for the state of Washington,” and declared that the judges’ ruling “effectively granted everything we sought.”

The Justice Department could now ask the Supreme Court — which often defers to the president on matters of immigration and national security — to intervene. The Supreme Court, though, remains one justice short, and many see it as ideologically split 4 to 4. A tie would keep in place whatever the appeals court decides. The Justice Department could also ask the full 9th Circuit to consider the matter.

The appeals court opinion was written by Judge Michelle T. Friedland, who was appointed by President Barack Obama; Judge Richard R. Clifton, who was appointed by President George W. Bush; and Judge William C. Canby, who was appointed by President Jimmy Carter. It was detailed, but it does not represent a final judgment on Trump’s immigration ban.

Much more here.

Spicer claims he ‘clearly meant Orlando’ after citing mystery Atlanta terrorist attack three times

Katie Mettler, writing in the Washington Post:

On three occasions in two days, White House press secretary Sean Spicer rattled off examples of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil while defending President Trump’s travel ban affecting seven majority-Muslim countries.

All three times, the talking point was nearly identical: We must do more — just ask the victims’ families.

What was puzzling, though, were the cities he invoked to prove this point. Spicer mentioned San Bernardino, Calif., and Boston, both places where the attacks were carried out by people who had self-radicalized in the United States but had foreign ties.

Then he threw in Atlanta, a city whose only terrorist attack were bombings orchestrated by a Florida-born domestic terrorist with no foreign ties. They happened in the 1990s, including one during the 1996 Olympics.

The head scratching commenced.

Reporters scrambled to identify what exactly Spicer was implying with the Atlanta addition. That the travel ban could have prevented a born and bred U.S. citizen from attacking Atlanta? Was this another “Bowling Green massacre” incident, the White House again invoking a terrorist attack that never actually happened?

The Daily Beast was the first to link the three Atlanta references, but when it asked the White House for clarification, it got no reply, the publication reported. CNN followed up with its own version of the story, and Spicer didn’t answer its questions either. Reports from other news media followed.

Then nearly 24 hours after the Daily Beast broke the story, Spicer offered an explanation via email to ABC News: When he referenced the Atlanta terrorist attack, he “clearly meant Orlando.”

A White House spokesperson confirmed that clarification in an email to The Washington Post Thursday morning.

Orlando, a city located 450 miles south of Atlanta in a different state, is a popular Florida tourist destination and home to Mickey Mouse. It was also, on June 12 of last year, the site of the most deadly mass shooting in U.S. history.

Forty-nine people were killed and even more injured when officials say Omar Mateen stormed Pulse, a popular gay dance club, on Latin night and opened fire.

President Trump and his aides, including Kellyanne Conway, have been using the attacks in Orlando, San Bernardino and Boston as talking points during media circuits to defend the ban. But the administration’s use of all three cities — particularly Orlando — remains an odd choice.

Much more here.

The ‘best fortnight in a decade’ for conservatives? Uh-oh.

Michael Gerson, writing in the Washington Post:

Stepping back, cooling off a bit, displaying some strategic patience, taking the long view: The first two weeks of the Trump administration have been the most abso-friggin-lutely frightening of the modern presidency.

President Trump has managed to taunt and alienate some of our closest allies — Mexico and Australia (!) — while continuing an NC-17-rated love fest with Russia. He has engaged in moral equivalence that places America on the level of Vladimir Putin’s bloody dictatorship. “Well, you think our country’s so innocent?” he said — a statement of such obscenity that it would haunt any liberal to the grave. He has issued an immigration executive order of unparalleled incompetence and cruelty, further victimizing refugees who are already fate’s punching bag. He has lied about things large (election fraud) and small (inaugural crowd size), refused to allow facts to modify his claims, and attempted to create his own reality through the repetition of deception. He has abused his standing as president to attack individuals, from a respected judge to the movie star who took over his God-awful reality-TV show. He has demonstrated a limitless appetite for organizational chaos and selected a staff that leaks like a salad spinner. He has become a massively polarizing figure within the United States and a risible figure on the global stage.

All in a fortnight.

And yet, serious, non-Trumpian figures on the right, such as blogger Ed Morrissey, have found it the “best fortnight in a decade” for conservatives. It is a “continuing feast of promises kept,” most obviously concerning Trump’s Supreme Court pick, but also on personnel choices, regulatory policies, the Keystone XL pipeline and the beginnings of the Obamacare rollback. For conservatives, it is a “solid winning streak,” concludes Morrissey. All the more welcome after a long dry spell.

These developments give conservatives much to chew on. Their best of times is a scary period for much of the country. Liberals would say: Of course, because conservatism itself is frightening. But Trump’s most vivid problems concern his character, his view of executive power, and a set of foreign policy instincts that America has not seen since Pearl Harbor caused the original “America First” to close up shop.

I am grateful to Trump for the wise nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the high court. But the trends of the first two weeks are not good for the Republican Party or for the long-term interests of conservatism. Trump is building deep loyalty among hard-line conservatives as his alarming antics and executive boundary-testing are alienating most Americans. (His disapproval is already more than 50 percent in recent polls.)

Republicans are on the horns of a bull in a china shop. Perceptive leaders can see their party eventually physically reduced and morally diminished to a fanatical ethno-nationalist core. But opposing Trump in public risks Twitter attacks and primary challenges. In Trump’s amoral, counterpunching ethic, even the mildest criticisms can result in massive retaliation. Trump has already succeeded in creating an atmosphere of intimidation in Washington.

Several members of the Senate are willing to take on Trump on a case-by-case basis. But almost the whole of the Republican House is riding the populist wave or waiting quietly until it passes. And Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) seems to have embraced the Faustian bargain with open eyes — a chance to legislate if he occasionally ignores his conscience.

Where is the Republican red line when it comes to Trump? It is too early to determine, but not too early to consider. Trump’s theory of governing, as it develops, could be a direct and serious challenge to American institutions. The president views legislative leaders such as Ryan — if the first part of his inaugural address is to be believed — as corrupt, spineless failures. And he believes that court rulings that go against him always represent bad faith on the part of a judge. Trump does not think he needs the support of political and media elites; the only things that really matter in politics are the people and the leader. And it is the leader who interprets the true interests of the people.

More here.

Repeal of Obamacare now a turn-off to voters

Via The Washington Post:

Republicans are getting very worried about repealing Obamacare, and tensions have begun to boil over, as The Post’s Mike DeBonis reports.

A new poll shows exactly why they should be concerned.

The Quinnipiac University poll shows that just 16 percent of Americans want Congress to repeal all of Obamacare, while 51 percent say it should repeal only parts and 30 percent say it shouldn’t repeal anything. This echoes other polling showing the Affordable Care Act rising in popularity and that full repeal has fallen out of favor — even as the GOP prepares to repeal the law one way or another.

Even more illustrative in the new poll, though, is this: Voters indicated they’ll actually punish those who vote for repeal. Quinnipiac asked them whether they would be more likely or less likely to vote for a senator or member of Congress who votes for repeal, and by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, they said less likely.

Fully 43 percent said they would be less likely to vote for someone who repeals Obamacare, while only 24 percent said they would be more likely.

This is in contrast to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from March 2014 that asked basically the same question. Back then, 47 percent said they would be more likely to vote for someone who votes to repeal Obamacare, while just 32 percent said they would be less likely.

So it’s basically been flipped. The bloom is off the repeal rose, it would seem.

Of course, this doesn’t mean repealing Obamacare is necessarily going to lose a whole bunch of Republicans reelection races come 2018 (if they actually wind up repealing it). In addition to the 24 percent who want their member to support repeal, another 29 percent say it makes no difference. That’s a majority combined.

But it’s also clear that we’ve seen a pretty demonstrable flip in voter desires when it comes to repealing Obamacare. What seemed like a good idea in the abstract for many voters no longer seems so; about half of those who once said they would be more likely to vote for a repeal advocate no longer say that. And even Republican voters aren’t terribly gung-ho about repeal; just 50 percent say a repeal vote would make them more likely to back a politician.

More here.

Meanwhile, in Texas . . .

Via The Washington Post:

The Republican representative whose district includes more miles of U.S.-Mexico border than any other came out against President Trump’s new executive actionordering the “immediate construction” of a border wall to block undocumented immigrants from entering the United States.

“Building a wall is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border,” Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.) said in a statement late Wednesday.

“Each section of the border faces unique geographical, cultural, and technological challenges that would be best addressed with a flexible, sector-by-sector approach that empowers the agents on the ground with the resources they need.”

Hurd, one of 38 Texans in Congress, represents a total of 800 miles of border stretching from San Antonio to El Paso. His 23rd District is majority-Hispanic and politically competitive: Hurd won a second term over Democrat Pete Gallego by fewer than 4,000 votes in November.

His comment on Trump’s border wall came amid several days of planned actions on immigration by the new president. Trump signed orders aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration by creating more detention centers, increasing the number of federal border agents and withholding federal funds from cities that do not comply with federal immigration law.

Trump said construction of a wall will take place “as soon as we can physically do it … I would say in months.”Hurd, who campaigned on the promise of standing up to Trump and this week called on the new president to release his tax returns, said it is “impossible” to build a physical wall in the rough terrain of his district.

Big Bend National Park and many areas in my district are perfect examples of where a wall is unnecessary and would negatively impact the environment, private property rights and economy,” Hurd said, advocating for an “intelligence-led approach” to border security.

No member of Texas’s congressional delegation had offered full-throated support of a complete border wall as of Dec. 20, according to a survey by the Texas Tribune.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Wednesday night that Congress would appropriate money for the project and explore “different ways of getting Mexico to contribute.”

Steven Mnuchin fails to disclose more than $100 million in personal assets

Via The Washington Post:

President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Treasury Department initially failed to disclose his interests in a Cayman Islands corporation as well as more than $100 million in personal assets, according to a memo  by Democratic staffers on the Finance committee that was obtained by The Washington Post.

“The reason nominees are allowed to amend their disclosure forms is to ensure that all the information provided is correct,” said Mnuchin spokeswoman Tara Bradshaw. “That is why we have provided  the appropriate amended forms to the committee.”

Steven T. Mnuchin is slated to face lawmakers Thursday in what is expected to be a testy confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance committee. Mnuchin has already come under fire for his management of a controversial California bank accused of aggressively foreclosing on homeowners and discriminating against minorities — charges that he denies. Democrats have also sought to highlight the former Goldman Sachs executive’s deep ties to Wall Street in hopes of undercutting Trump’s populist appeal, and the new details of his financial holdings are likely to provide them more ammunition.

According to the memo, Mnuchin submitted answers Dec. 19 to a standard committee questionnaire seeking information about his financial and business interests. At the time, Mnuchin verified that those responses were accurate and complete.

However, Mnuchin had left out $95 million in real estate from his initial disclosures, according to the memo. Those assets included a co-op in New York City and homes in Southampton, New York, and Los Angeles. In addition, the memo revealed Mnuchin possesses about $15 million worth of real estate in Mexico.

Mnuchin also at first failed to disclose his role as director of Dune Capital International, which is incorporated in the Cayman Islands, the document shows. He also holds positions in nine other business entities and three trusts, including one connected to Sears Chief Executive Edward Lampert, Mnuchin’s former college roommate.

Much more here.

Marco Rubio takes charge

Marco Rubio took it to Rex Tillerson yesterday. Very impressive.

Jennifer Rubin, writing in the Washington Post:

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was far and away the most effective questioner on the GOP side in yesterday’s confirmation hearing for Rex Tillerson for secretary of state. He asked crisp questions, pointed out where Tillerson dodged and demonstrated the degree to which Tillerson was uncomfortable giving definitive answers on a range of issues, including human rights.

The committee members have other concerns, including Tillerson’s tenure at ExxonMobil. Democrats pressed him on his record of doing business through an affiliate with countries such as Syria and Iran, and asked him to explain ExxonMobil’s record of denying climate change. He would not answer directly, underscoring how different his role was as a corporate chief executive from that of a secretary of state.

Tillerson’s unfamiliarity with the inner workings of government and of diplomacy specifically would put him in a much weaker position than, say, a John Bolton, who possesses granular knowledge of issues and experience taming State Department bureaucracy. For those concerned the permanent foreign service corps would undermine a newcomer at every turn and slow-walk policy initiatives, Tillerson is a problematic choice. His reliance on generic statements and refusal to reveal policy positions emphasized just how much he will have to learn. A steep learning curve for a secretary of state in times such as these may be deeply worrisome, particularly when national security appointees in the White House (e.g. Michael T. Flynn) may capitalize on a weaker-than-usual secretary of state to push their personal agendas.

Rubio did not say how he would vote on Tillerson’s confirmation. However, as one who was perceived as less than resolute during and after the presidential campaign (for example, supporting President-elect Donald Trump while saying he had concerns about Trump handling the nuclear codes), Rubio should align his votes with his rhetoric if he wants to silence critics.

In the end, Rubio might conclude other Trump picks could be worse than Tillerson, or that Tillerson is at least open to listening to Congress and learning as he goes. He might find that Tillerson will try to live down his reputation as soft on Russia, and therefore be more aggressive in his Russia policy than others would. Regardless of the reason, however, if he winds up voting to confirm Tillerson, he only will have underscored criticism that his bark is worse than his bite.

Rubio has a remarkable opportunity to distinguish himself from more politically craven, hawkish colleagues such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who introduced Tillerson, and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who backed Tillerson before hearing a word of testimony. We will see how much Rubio has learned from the presidential experience and his first term in the Senate. Does going along to get along pay off, or does forging your own way on issues that may put you at odds with the party make you into presidential material? The Tillerson vote will be telling.

Federal ethics chief blasts Trump’s plan to break from businesses, calling it ‘meaningless’

Lisa Rein, writing in the Washington Post:

The head of the federal Office of Government Ethics on Wednesday denounced President-elect Donald Trump’s plan to separate the presidency from his business empire as “wholly inadequate” and said it does not meet the standards met by the “best of his nominees.”

“The ethics program starts at the top,” Director Walter Shaub said at a Brookings Institution forum in Washington. “We can’t risk creating the perception that government officials will use their positions for personal profit.”

“Stepping back from running his business is meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective,” Shaub said. “The Presidency is a full-time job and he would’ve had to step back anyway.”

The unusual and lengthy statement from the government’s top ethics lawyer came hours after Trump outlined plans to shift his assets into a trust managed by his sons and give up management of his private company. Shaub said that Trump should place all of his assets in a blind trust instead to avoid potential conflicts of interest in the White House, echoing arguments that ethics lawyers have made in recent weeks.

“This is not a blind trust,” Shaub said. “It’s not even close.”

Shaub, whose staff is poring over the financial holdings of Trump’s nominees for Cabinet posts, was unusual in his public condemnation of the incoming president. He praised former ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, the nominee for secretary of state, for putting his vast retirement package into a trust that will be independently managed and cannot invest in the company he headed.

“It’s a sterling model for what we’d like to see with other nominees,” Shaub said. Then he added: “The cost is often greater the higher up you go.”

Shaub said Trump “still has time” to resolve his ethical conflicts properly.

Trump’s “press conference” yesterday was a farce. In particular, there was a group of Trump supporters that would burst into applause to all of his answers. Very unorthodox, and off-putting. Trump remains uncontrollable.

The GOP has “buyer’s remorse” over Obamacare repeal

Aaron Blake, writing in The Washington Post:

Politics can sometimes resemble a smoldering pile of broken promises. And the GOP‘s long-standing pledge to repeal Obamacare on Day One of a GOP administration is suddenly looking like it might be thrown on the heap.

Over the last week, 10 Republican senators have voiced concerns about the GOP’s plans to repeal the law immediately before a replacement can be crafted, and they’re now being joined by a group of very conservative House Republicans.

“I think when we repeal Obamacare we need to have the solution in place moving forward,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said on Chuck Todd’s MSNBC show. “Again, the solution may be implemented in a deliberate fashion, but I don’t think we can repeal Obamacare and say we’ll get the answer two years from now.”

Joining Cotton in this sentiment last week were Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). And this week, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is urging patience, as is Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). Corker and Collins, meanwhile, have joined with Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to file an amendment to the budget reconciliation process that would delay the deadline for repeal legislation from Jan. 27 — one week after President-elect Donald Trump is sworn in — to March 3.

While most of these senators are on the moderate side, they’ve also gotten some buy-in from the House Freedom Caucus — a group of tea-party aligned conservatives. “We just need to slow down the process so that we can understand a little bit more of the specifics, the timetable, replacement votes, reconciliation instructions, etc.,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C) said Monday.

Republicans have 52 senators, so nearly one-fifth of their members have now lodged this concern. Even more importantly, losing three of them could thwart any effort to repeal Obamacare in the near term.

It’s not clear how most of these members will actually vote — many of them have demurred on this question, likely because doing so could be cast as a vote against repealing a law the GOP base hates — but there appears to be a very real and growing possibility that Obamacare won’t be repealed right away.

 * * *

The best way to foreclose the possibility of repealing Obamacare and failing to install a good replacement, then, would seem to be to hold off on repealing it until you’ve got that replacement. And a poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that’s what the vast majority of Americans would prefer.

As Wonkblog’s Carolyn Y. Johnson writes, the poll shows that 49 percent of Americans support repealing Obamacare, but only 20 percent want instant repeal while working out the details of a replacement later. By contrast, 28 percent prefer Congress would do as these 10 GOP senators are urging and wait until there’s a replacement. Combine them with the 47 percent who don’t want repeal at all, and that’s a very healthy popular desire for Congress to leave the law in place, at least for now.

Will Trump’s White House have computers?

Catherine Rampell, writing in the Washington Post:

Donald Trump likes his technology like he likes his decor: stuck in the ’80s.

For all the praise he receives for embracing 21st-century social media, the president-elect seems to understand little about modern technology. And he exhibits even less interest in learning about it.

“I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly,” he babbled last week. “The whole, you know, age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on. We have speed, we have a lot of other things, but I’m not sure you have the kind of security that you need.”

Ah, yes, that fabled Age of Computer. I believe it dawned when the moon was in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with Mars.

Three days later, at his New Year’s Eve party, the president-elect doubled down on Luddism while professing to know “a lot about hacking.”

Asked about the role cybersecurity policy will play in his administration, he steered Americans toward bike messengers.

“If you have something really important, write it out and have it delivered by courier, the old-fashioned way, because I’ll tell you what, no computer is safe. I don’t care what they say, no computer is safe,” he said. “I have a boy who’s 10 years old, he can do anything with a computer. You want something to really go without detection, write it out and have it sent by courier.”

Again, this was in response to a question not about how he keeps his tax returns confidential, but about national cybersecurity policy.

This is hardly the first time Trump has expressed distrust of newfangled technological gizmos.

“I don’t do the email thing,” Trump said in a 2007 deposition.

“I’m not an email person myself,” Trump echoed during that infamous July news conference in which he invited Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email. “I don’t believe in it because I think it can be hacked, for one thing.”

And at a February rally: “I go to court and they say, ‘Produce your emails.’ I say I don’t have any.”

His email abstention is not merely about information security or limiting his legal liability, however. He sends snail-mail messages even when he expects them to be widely disseminated, as any journalist who’s received one of his gold-Sharpied nastygrams can attest.

Perhaps, unlike most Americans — including my email-proficient nonagenarian grandfather and a majority of Trump’s fellow senior citizens — he simply hasn’t bothered to learn how to use the interwebs.

Avoiding computers may indeed be a relatively reliable, if productivity-limiting, strategy for guarding sensitive material. Other successful chief executives have also famously eschewed digital communications, though it’s hard to imagine any entrepreneur becoming successful today without at least a passing familiarity with post-1993 modes of interaction.

However Trump has run things at the Trump Organization, though, communicating exclusively via courier hardly seems like a scalable strategy for combating international cyberwarfare.

More here.

Bernie Sanders on Trump’s Carrier campaign

This is way too good.

Bernie Sanders, writing in the Washington Post:

Today, about 1,000 Carrier workers and their families should be rejoicing. But the rest of our nation’s workers should be very nervous.

President-elect Donald Trump will reportedly announce a deal with United Technologies, the corporation that owns Carrier, that keeps less than 1,000 of the 2,100 jobs in America that were previously scheduled to be transferred to Mexico. Let’s be clear: It is not good enough to save some of these jobs. Trump made a promise that he would save all of these jobs, and we cannot rest until an ironclad contract is signed to ensure that all of these workers are able to continue working in Indiana without having their pay or benefits slashed.

In exchange for allowing United Technologies to continue to offshore more than 1,000 jobs, Trump will reportedly give the company tax and regulatory favors that the corporation has sought. Just a short few months ago, Trump was pledging to force United Technologies to “pay a damn tax.” He was insisting on very steep tariffs for companies like Carrier that left the United States and wanted to sell their foreign-made products back in the United States. Instead of a damn tax, the company will be rewarded with a damn tax cut. Wow! How’s that for standing up to corporate greed? How’s that for punishing corporations that shut down in the United States and move abroad?

In essence, United Technologies took Trump hostage and won. And that should send a shock wave of fear through all workers across the country.

Trump has endangered the jobs of workers who were previously safe in the United States. Why? Because he has signaled to every corporation in America that they can threaten to offshore jobs in exchange for business-friendly tax benefits and incentives. Even corporations that weren’t thinking of offshoring jobs will most probably be reevaluating their stance this morning. And who would pay for the high cost for tax cuts that go to the richest businessmen in America? The working class of America.  

Let’s be clear. United Technologies is not going broke. Last year, it made a profit of $7.6 billion and received more than $6 billion in defense contracts. It has also received more than $50 million from the Export-Import Bank and very generous tax breaks. In 2014, United Technologies gave its former chief executive Louis Chenevert a golden parachute worth more than $172 million. Last year, the company’s five highest-paid executives made more than $50 million. The firm also spent $12 billion to inflate its stock price instead of using that money to invest in new plants and workers.

More here.