The Trump presidency doesn’t seem sustainable

Ruth Marcus, reporting for the Washington Post:

So much for the notion that the second 100 days would be calmer or more reassuring.

As April drew to a close, and with it the artificial marker of the first 100 days of the Trump presidency, it was possible to conjure a relatively comforting scenario: It could have been worse.

After all, President Trump launched his administration with the dangerous duo of Michael Flynn as national security adviser and Stephen K. Bannon ascendant. The 100-day period ended with Flynn fired, Bannon diminished and the new national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, joining forces with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to provide a protective buffer against presidential impulsiveness.

Meantime, notwithstanding atrocities such as the immigration orders and the House health-care plan, Trump backed away from some of his most jarring and irresponsible campaign-trail promises and rhetoric, from declaring NATO “obsolete” to labeling China a currency manipulator to moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

A 70-year-old man does not change his character or basic approach. Still, the immense responsibility of the presidency molds its inhabitant. Thus, it was possible to detect some glimmers of maturation and even learning. Health care turned out to be more complicated than anyone knew. Heartbreaking photos of dead Syrian children killed by chemical weapons managed to evoke previously unseen empathy.

Not that the first 100 days had been even in the exurbs of normal, with the inaugural invocation of “American carnage”; the flood of ego-boosting untruths, from the inflated crowd size to the purportedly fraudulent popular vote; and the reflexive assault on enemies, including a “so-called judge” and the Obama administration for its supposed wiretapping plot.

Still, in resolutely optimistic moments, you could imagine a White House whose learning curve would continue an upward climb, however gradual and episodic, in which the New York moderates — Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, et al. — would elbow aside the America Firsters.

No longer.

True, the institutions of U.S. government and society have proved relatively robust. The courts and the media have risen to the constitutional occasion; Congress not so much, and intramural GOP dysfunction has so far prevented the worst from being legislated.

But Trump himself is turning out to be the full-fledged disaster of our worst fears. He understands nothing and is uninterested in learning anything — not just the dreary substance of things such as tax reform but constitutional values, governing norms and the United States’ unique role in the world.

He sees things only through the distorting prism of an all-consuming ego. There is only one Trump instinct — “fight, fight, fight,” he said at the Coast Guard Academy — and one Trumpian dichotomy: friend or foe. He is impervious to embarrassment, no matter how blatant his falsehood. The stain of his behavior spreads to taint anyone within range.

The past few weeks have presented an alarming parade of proof. Authoritarianism? Trump summarily fired his FBI director over “this Russia thing” — after, according to reports, James B. Comey resisted Trump’s demand that he pledge loyalty and declined Trump’s importunings to drop the Flynn probe.

Trump met unapologetically with yet another dictatorial thug, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and remained shamefully silent as Erdogan’s security goons beat up protesters on U.S. soil. No surprise there, from the candidate who urged his crowds to “knock the crap out of” protesters and as president reportedly pressed Comey to jail reporters for obtaining leaks.

Overweening egotism laced with self-pity? Trump used the occasion of the Coast Guard graduation to lament his treatment — “No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly.”

Similarly, in the Trumpiverse, the Russia inquiry and the newly named special counsel represent “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.” In fact, Trump has only himself to blame — Comey’s firing made the appointment inevitable, and the episode demonstrates the justice system working to allay public fears of political interference.

Dangerous ignorance and lack of preparedness for his post? Without evident forethought, heedless of consideration of the consequences, classically boastful, Trump blurted out code-word information about the Islamic State to the Russians at his Oval Office yuk-fest — and, according to the New York Times, derided Comey as a “nut job” whose firing relieved “great pressure” on him.

The national security and diplomatic establishment shudders at the thought of this man at loose abroad.

It is impossible to know how this disastrous episode in our history will conclude, or how grave the damage will be. But an adage from conservative economist Herb Stein comes to mind: If something cannot go on forever, it will stop. This situation does not feel sustainable for a full four years.

Trump turmoil is spreading far beyond Washington to state and local races

John Wagner, reporting for the Washington Post:

As a cascade of controversies consumes the White House, anxiety is rising among Republicans well beyond the Beltway that President Trump’s troubles could take a severe toll on the party heading into next year’s midterm elections and beyond.

With a near-daily string of new scandals and unfavorable headlines — including this week’s news of a special counsel to examine possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia — a growing number of Republicans across the country are watching dispiritedly as Democrats become further energized to turn out their voters in 2018, potentially tipping not only congressional contests but state and local races down the ballot.

“There were a lot of things that were promised to be done, and we’re just getting a lot of noise out of Washington,” said Marc Rotterman, a longtime Republican consultant in North Carolina who was a Trump supporter ahead of last year’s election. “It seems it’s Russia 24-7. When you’re reacting and defending, you’re not moving on your agenda. You’re not fixing day-to-day problems for average Americans.”

Rotterman said that “there still could be a course correction” but that if Trump and Republicans don’t make good on their promises, they risk losing support — particularly from the blue-collar voters who helped propel Trump to victory last fall. “They’re counting on him,” Rotterman said.

Trump arrived in Washington in an uneasy alliance with establishment Republicans, many of whom were willing to overlook his eccentricities if they still were able to make good on shared legislative priorities, including repeal of the Affordable Care Act and tax cuts.

While Trump has issued a flurry of executive orders and delivered on one key conservative agenda item — the confirmation of a successor to the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — there is mounting fear that other marquee campaign promises will not be realized, making it harder for Republicans to win elections.

Since Trump’s controversial firing of FBI Director James B. Comey last week, the White House has been in full crisis mode.

“We cannot sustain this level of chaos from the White House and expect it will be anything less than a tragic outcome on Election Day,” said Jennifer Horn, a former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

Horn, who was accused of anti-Trump bias during her tenure as chairwoman, said she has noticed “a significant increase in the level of anxiety about the president and his behavior” from party leaders around the country over the past two weeks.

Some Trump boosters offer a more measured take on what has transpired, suggesting the drama in Washington will not be foremost on the minds of voters.

“The next election will have a lot more to do with jobs numbers than Russia,” said Barry Bennett, a Trump political adviser during last year’s election campaign. If the economy “keeps perking along,” he said, Republicans could do just fine.

Midterm calculus

While many Republicans are frustrated by what is going on in Washington, polls have shown that Trump remains popular with most members of the party and continues to be viewed positively by his base.

Trump also could try to energize his voters next year by blaming Washington’s problems on the hostile establishment he says he is fighting.

However, it remains an open question how many of the blue-collar and other nontraditional GOP voters who backed Trump will turn out for other Republicans when he is not on the ballot. At the same time, Democratic voters tend not to turn out as strongly in nonpresidential years.

The Trump factor already is being tested in several special congressional elections this year to replace members plucked from the House to join Trump’s Cabinet. All have shaped up to be closer than expected, and Trump’s troubles are a particular factor in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District — an affluent, ­Republican-leaning jurisdiction in suburban Atlanta.

“It’s a close race that shouldn’t be close,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who is working for GOP candidate Karen Handel, said of the June 20 election.

Ayres said that Trump’s troubles are clearly a factor in Handel’s race against Democrat Jon Ossoff, as well as in other upcoming contests.

“It certainly doesn’t make it any easier for Republican candidates in highly educated districts,” Ayres said. “The atmosphere in Washington and attitudes toward the president create a far more energized Democratic base than you’d otherwise have.”

Much more here.

Trump acknowledges ‘facts’ shared with Russian envoys during White House meeting

Ashley Parker, reporting for the Washington Post:

President Trump appeared to acknowledge Tuesday that he revealed highly classified information to Russia — a stunning confirmation of a Washington Post story and a move that contradicted his own White House team after it scrambled to deny the report.

Trump’s tweets tried to explain away the news, which emerged late Monday, that he had shared sensitive, “code-word” information with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador during a White House meeting last week, a disclosure that intelligence officials warned could jeopardize a crucial intelligence source on the Islamic State.

“As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety,” Trump wrote Tuesday morning. “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”

Trump’s tweets undercut his administration’s frantic effort Monday night to contain the damaging report. The White House trotted out three senior administration officials — National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — to attack the reports.

The president’s admission also follows a familiar pattern. Last week, after firing FBI director James B. Comey, the White House originally claimed that the president was acting in response to a memo provided by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.

But in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Trump later admitted that he had made the decision to fire Comey well before Rosenstein’s memo, in part because he was frustrated by the director’s investigation into possible collusion between his presidential campaign and the Russian government.

At the time, Trump was surprised by the almost universal bipartisan backlash to his decision, and raged at his staff, threatening to shake-up his already tumultuous West Wing. His communications team — Communications Director Mike Dubke and press secretary Sean Spicer — bore the brunt of the president’s ire.

On Monday night, following The Washington Post story, the president again was frustrated with Dubke and Spicer, according to someone with knowledge of the situation.

But his decision Tuesday to undermine his own West Wing staff in a series of tweets is unlikely to help him bring stability to his chaotic administration, just days before he departs on a 10-day trip abroad.

Because the president has broad authority to declassify information, it is unlikely his disclosures to the Russians were illegal — as they would have been had just about anyone else in government shared the same secrets. But the classified information he shared with a geopolitical foe was nonetheless explosive, having been provided by a critical U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so delicate that some details were withheld even from top allies and other government officials.

More here.

Trump quote of the day

I love my previous life. I had so many things going. This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier. I thought it was more of a … I’m a details-oriented person. I think you’d say that, but I do miss my old life. I like to work so that’s not a problem but this is actually more work.

Donald Trump, quoted in the Washington Post.

From ‘build that wall’ to kick the can: Trump’s border promise might be hard to break

Jenna Johnson and Sean Sullivan, writing in the Washington Post:

Rush Limbaugh and listeners of his conservative radio show were not happy with reports this week that President Trump was, as Limbaugh put it, “caving on his demand for a measly $1 billion in the budget for his wall on the border with Mexico.”

Tim from Detroit called in to say he’s worried Trump will “kick this can down the road” like any other politician. Ray from Chattanooga, Tenn., wished he could tell Trump: “Be the man we elected you to be.”

And John from Polk City, Fla., added: “Number one, build the wall. Every time he spoke: Build a wall. I’m afraid he’s starting to dip his foot into the swamp. And, boy, I just don’t want to see that happen.”

In his bumpy first three months in office, Trump has reversed himself on campaign promises now seen as impractical or unnecessary, from repealing and replacing Obamacare in a single day to labeling China as a currency manipulator.

But Trump’s promise to build an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall” paid for by Mexico was special. It was his most vivid campaign promise, and its proposed height grew with every obstacle thrown in Trump’s way, from naysayers saying it wasn’t possible to the Mexican government saying it wouldn’t foot the bill. The most popular chant at campaign rallies became “Build that wall!”

Failing to quickly follow through on a wall carries real political risks for Trump, whose success is due in large part to his embrace of hard-line positions on immigration. There is also peril for fellow Republicans — who have been split for years on how the United States should reform its immigration system — in not taking the idea of the wall seriously enough.

Mark Krikorian, the longtime executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that advocates reduced immigration, said that he has never considered a border wall a top priority.

But now that the wall has taken on a life of its own, Krikorian said that Trump and Republicans have to make some sort of progress in securing a chunk of the border with a wall or heavy-duty fence — or else blow the opportunity to show Americans the party is ready to take action to crack down on illegal immigration.

“Following through on wall construction is one of the ways that the political class can win back trust on this topic,” Krikorian said. “It’s a tangible thing. You can take pictures of it and imagine it in your head.”

He added: “Even if the border wall did no good at all to control immigration, it would be important to build . . . Even if it did nothing, even if it was completely ineffective, it’s important politically.”

To Trump, the wall is a concrete symbol of his commitment to cracking down on illegal immigration. To many lawmakers, it’s a fantastical joke that they have to carefully navigate.

Since Trump took office, many lawmakers have been trying to steer him toward more practical solutions for the border involving fencing, increased border patrols and technology. They argue that constructing a wall would cost tens of billions, still wouldn’t solve many of the country’s border problems and could create whole new challenges as well.

“I think we’re all recognizing that his message is one that he wants a secure border. I think at one point that he may have very well thought that that was the best way to do it,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.).

Even at the White House, aides have been shifting their messaging to the broad topic of “border security,” with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus using the phrase six times on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday while only saying the word “wall” twice. The next day, Trump softened his demand to include wall funding in a must-pass spending bill — a comment widely viewed as caving to pressure from the same lawmakers that Trump once bragged he could outsmart.

More here.

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

Jenna McGregor, reporting for the Washington Post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

More here.

Rice denies compiling, leaking names of Trump officials from intelligence reports

Via The Washington Post:

Former Obama national security adviser Susan E. Rice said Tuesday that she “absolutely” never sought to uncover “for political purposes” the names of Trump campaign or transition officials concealed in intelligence intercepts, and she called suggestions that she leaked those identities “completely false.”

“I leaked nothing, to nobody, and never have and never would,” Rice said in response to the latest charges and countercharges flowing from politically charged investigations into Russian interference in the presidential election.

Since they first surfaced over the weekend, the Rice reports have quickly overtaken the steady drumbeat of revelations about connections to Moscow that have dogged President Trump for months. On Tuesday, the subject dominated cable news and flooded Twitter.

“RICE ORDERED SPY DOCS ON TRUMP?” the president retweeted, with a link to the Daily Caller and a Drudge Report headlined “Boiled Rice.”

A number of Republican lawmakers said that Rice should be called to testify before congressional inquiries into what U.S. intelligence has said were Russian efforts not only to roil the presidential race, but also to tip the scales in Trump’s favor.

“If the reports are right, then she will be of interest to us,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which, along with its House counterpart and the FBI, is investigating the matter.

“When it comes to Susan E. Rice, you need to verify, not trust,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview with Fox News. “I think every American should know whether or not the national security adviser to President Obama was involved in unmasking Trump transition figures for political purposes.”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), called Rice the “Typhoid Mary of the Obama administration.”

Beyond Trump’s tweets, however, the White House was uncharacteristically restrained on the subject, as its media and Capitol Hill allies expressed outrage on its behalf. “It’s not for me to decide who should testify or how they should do it,” press secretary Sean Spicer said.

* * *

Asked Tuesday whether she was willing to testify, Rice told MSNBC, “Let’s see what comes.” Investigations on “Russian involvement in our electoral process are very important, they’re very serious, and every American ought to have an interest in those investigations going wherever the evidence indicates they should,” she said.

“I have an interest as an American citizen, as a former official,” Rice said. “I would want to be helpful in that process if I could.”

The focus on Rice comes as lawmakers are trying to iron out why Nunes went to the White House two weeks ago to view documents that he later said suggested that the names of Trump transition team members had been improperly “unmasked.” Top officials can ask intelligence agencies to reveal the names to them for national security or other reasons.

The term refers to revealing a name that has been blacked out in an intelligence surveillance report. The law does not permit surveillance of U.S. people without a warrant; if one shows up in authorized surveillance of a foreign person, it is “masked.”

News media reports on contacts between Russia and Trump associates, including in The Washington Post, have included names said to have appeared in intelligence reports — either persons named in conversations between foreigners, or conversations directly between foreigners and U.S. persons.

Most prominent among them is former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, whose ­December phone conversations with Russia’s ambassador in Washington included references to U.S. sanctions imposed under President Barack Obama. After a Post report on the conversations, Trump ousted Flynn for mischaracterizing them to Vice President Pence.

More here.

The Republican health-care proposal is breathtakingly unpopular

Philip Bump, reporting for The Washington Post:

We’ll start with the bad news for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan.

A new Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday shows that the American Health Care Act, the Republican bill championed by Ryan and due for a vote any minute now, is severely unpopular. Stunningly unpopular.

It is, amazingly enough, less popular than Congress itself.

According to Quinnipiac, only 17 percent of Americans approve of the bill — and only 6 percent of the country supports it strongly. (Congress is approved of by 21 percent of the country.) By contrast, well over half of Americans disapprove of it, 43 percent of them strongly. In other words, more than twice as many people have strongly negative views of the bill than have any positive feelings for it.

Broken down by demographic, the data are grim for Ryan and Republican leaders — including President Trump, who has embraced the plan.

Some things to note:

• A lot of people aren’t very familiar with the legislation, as indicated by those gray bars. But those who are familiar with it are heavily stacked against it, by a 3-to-1 margin.
• Among no demographic group does a majority approve of the bill.
• Among only three groups — Republicans, older Americans and whites without college degrees — does less than half of the population disapprove.
• Only among Republicans and those 65 and older does more than 10 percent of the population approve of the bill strongly.
• In every group except Republicans, more than a third of the population views the legislation strongly negatively.

The three groups that are below 50 percent disapproval are, as you likely noticed, groups that backed Trump strongly in the 2016 election. Across the board, Trump’s approval rating from each demographic group was much higher than the legislation’s approval rating — generally about twice as high.

More here.

Trump loyalists sound alarm over ‘RyanCare,’ endangering health bill

Robert Costa and Philip Rucker, reporting for The Washington Post:

A simmering rebellion of conservative populists loyal to President Trump is further endangering the GOP health-care push, with a chorus of influential voices suspicious of the proposal warning the president to abandon it.

From headlines at Breitbart to chatter on Fox News Channel and right-wing talk radio, as well as among friends who have Trump’s ear, the message has been blunt: The plan being advanced by congressional Republican leaders is deeply flawed — and, at worst, a political trap.

Trump’s allies worry that he is jeopardizing his presidency by promoting the bill spearheaded by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), arguing that it would fracture Trump’s coalition of working- and middle-class voters, many of them older and subsisting on federal aid.

Vice President Pence and administration officials scrambled Tuesday to salvage the plan amid widespread dissatisfaction in both the Senate and House over the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate that 24 million fewer people would be insured in a decade under the Ryan proposal, titled the American Health Care Act.

Trump — who has not yet fully used the bully pulpit of the presidency to rally support for the plan — spoke privately with Ryan on Tuesday afternoon. They discussed the various factions, the opinions of several key lawmakers and developing a closing strategy, according to two people with knowledge of the call.

Trump loyalists warned that the president was at risk of violating some of his biggest campaign promises — such as providing broad health coverage for all Americans and preserving Medicaid and other entitlement programs — in service to an ideological project championed for years by Ryan and other establishment Republicans.

“Trump figures things out pretty quickly, and I think he’s figuring out this situation, how the House Republicans did him a disservice,” said Christopher Ruddy, a longtime Trump friend. “President Trump is a big-picture, pragmatic Republican, and unfortunately the Ryan Republican plan doesn’t capture his worldview.”

Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media, published a column Tuesday urging Trump to “ditch” the current bill.

Inside the White House, senior officials said they are taking note of the mounting opposition. “You can’t be so blind that you’re not seeing the outside noise,” said one adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the adviser was not authorized to speak publicly.

A second adviser, who also requested anonymity to speak candidly, said, “We take their views seriously and we’re listening, but we do appreciate when those concerns are shared privately and with a smaller megaphone.”

Much more here.

The Trump administration dons a tinfoil hat

Catherine Rampell, reporting in the Washington Post:

Time to trade in those red #MAGA caps, Trumpkins. If you want your headgear to fit in with the latest White House fashions, invest in some tinfoil.

From top to bottom, this administration has been infested with conspiracy theorists. Most appear to be true believers. Take Stephen K. Bannon and his anxieties about the “deep state,” or the recently ousted Michael Flynn and his propagation of suggestions that Hillary Clinton was tied to a child sex ring run out of a D.C. pizza parlor.

Others, such as Kellyanne Conway, appear to just be paranoiacs for pay.

Conway seems convinced that the best way to stay in her boss’s good graces is to spread parody-defying crackpot theories, or at least add a dash of color to President Trump’s own crackpottery.

You may recall that Trump, with zero evidence, accused President Barack Obama of having the “wires tapped” at Trump Tower. Trump then called for a congressional witch hunt to find proof that the unfounded allegation is true. Over the weekend, Bergen Record columnist Mike Kelly asked Conway point blank, “Do you know whether Trump Tower was wiretapped?”

Conway’s response: “What I can say is there are many ways to surveil each other now, unfortunately. . . . There was an article this week that talked about how you can surveil someone through their phones, through their — certainly through their television sets, any number of different ways. And microwaves that turn into cameras, et cetera.”

Yup, Conway suggested that Team Trump may have been surveilled via microwaves and televisions. To be fair, though, if one were to spy on Trump, through the TV would be a good place to start.

In subsequent interviews, Conway acknowledged that she had “no evidence” for this claim and that she is “not in the job of having evidence” and is “not Inspector Gadget.”

* * *

It’s hardly just coincidence that the Trump executive branch is rife with beliefs that are wholly disconnected from reality. Such beliefs were a foundation of his campaign. Of course this would be the talent he attracts. Not scientists, experts or others who believe in weighing evidence, but people who heard Trump’s many malicious lies and reckless insinuations — that vaccines cause autism, that Ted Cruz’s dad was connected to the JFK assassination, that Mexicans are flooding over the border to rape and kill, that Antonin Scalia and Vince Foster may have been murdered, that 3 million people voted illegally, that our first black president was born in Kenya — and said: “Sign me up!”

That includes people such as Curtis Ellis, a Labor Department appointee who previously argued that Democrats were engaged in “ethnic cleansing” of working-class whites. Or Sid Bowdidge, the massage therapist with no relevant experience who landed a job as a political appointee at the Energy Department, despite tweeting that Muslims ought to be exterminated and Obama was related to radical Islamist terrorists.

As Conway has demonstrated, the darker and more sensational your conspiracy theories, the better. For this administration, only one political premise is beyond the pale: that the Russians maybe, just maybe, intervened in the 2016 election to help put Trump in the White House.

Whoa, let’s not get carried away.

White House offers no evidence, seeks probe of ‘politically motivated investigation’ during 2016 campaign

Abby Phillip, reporting in the Washington Post:

A day after President Trump alleged — without offering any evidence that President Barack Obama had ordered the wiretapping of the Republican’s campaign headquarters, the White House said it won’t comment further until congressional oversight committees investigate the matter.

In a statement, White House press secretary Sean Spicer cited unknown “reports” of “potentially politically motivated investigations” during the 2016 campaign, calling them “troubling.”

“Reports concerning potentially politically motivated investigations immediately ahead of the 2016 election are very troubling,” Spicer said. “President Donald J. Trump is requesting that as part of their investigation into Russian activity, the congressional intelligence committees exercise their oversight authority to determine whether executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016.”

* * *

Speaking on NBC News on Sunday morning, former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., who served in that post in the Obama administration, flatly denied that a wiretap was authorized against Trump or his campaign during his tenure.

“There was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president-elect at the time as a candidate or against his campaign,” Clapper said on “Meet the Press.”

He added that he would “absolutely” have been informed if the FBI had sought or received a warrant to wiretap Trump or his campaign.

“I can deny it,” Clapper continued.

The White House’s escalation of Trump’s claims were kept at arm’s length by congressional Republicans appearing on Sunday morning news broadcasts.

When asked about Trump’s allegations, Senate Intelligence Committee member Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) declined to comment on the president’s tweets but said he has “seen no evidence of the allegations.”

“Whether that’s a FISA court application or denial of that application or a re-submission of that application, that doesn’t mean that none of these things happened. It just means we haven’t seen that yet,” Cotton added, speaking on Fox News Sunday.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he is not aware of evidence to back up the president’s claim.

“I have no insight into exactly what he’s referring to,” Rubio said on “Meet the Press.” “The president put that out there, and now the White House will have to answer for exactly what he was referring to.”

Obama’s allies were more blunt, denying flatly that the former president had ordered a wiretap of Trump’s campaign.

More here.

It’s now political suicide for Republicans if they don’t call for deeper investigations on Russia

Chris Cillizza, reporting for the Washington Post:

President Trump’s Russia problems just got a whole lot worse.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kisylak twice in 2016, according to The Washington Post, conversations that run directly counter to Sessions’s assertions during his confirmation hearing to be the nation’s top cop.

In that Judiciary Committee hearing Jan. 1o, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked Sessions whether he was aware of any contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian intelligence officials. “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians,” Sessions replied.

It does not take a political genius to understand how big a problem this is for Sessions, Trump and congressional Republicans more broadly. (Sessions’s response — I talked to a lot people! — isn’t going to cut it.)

Before this report, most congressional Republicans were resistant to the idea of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the contacts between Russia and Trump campaign officials and surrogates — insisting that the ongoing FBI investigation and congressional committees looking into the issue were more than enough.

That’s going to become an untenable position for Republicans — starting with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — in light of this new information about Sessions. Not only is there a very serious question about whether Sessions misled — purposely or accidentally — his colleagues while under oath, but this is only the latest incident involving unanswered questions about the ties among Trump, his top advisers and Russia.

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn lost his job last month after lying to Vice President Pence — and lots of other people — about the nature of his conversations with Kisylak. Trump has repeatedly refused to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin while insisting that stories about his ties to Russia are “fake news.”

In short: Where there’s smoke and smoke and smoke and smoke and smoke, most reasonable people will assume there is fire — or that there should be an independent investigation to determine whether there is fire. Arguing that “there’s nothing to see here” is simply not a tenable position for Republicans at this point.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R), who has been outspoken in raising doubts about Trump and Russia, was blunt about what needs to happen if Sessions spoke to Kisylak.

I suspect lots of Republicans will follow Graham’s lead over the next 24 or 48 hours. The details here — particularly given the Flynn resignation — almost certainly will force an act of political triage from GOPers. They need to find a way to wall themselves off from what, with each passing day, is becoming more and more toxic. Otherwise, the spillage could leak all over them.

More here.

These Iowans voted for Trump. Many of them are already disappointed.

Jenna Johnson, writing in The Washington Post:

Tom Godat, a union electrician who has always voted for Democrats, cast his ballot for Donald Trump last year as “the lesser of two evils” compared to Hillary Clinton.

He’s already a little embarrassed about it.

There’s a lot that Godat likes about President Trump, especially his pledge to make the country great again by ignoring lobbyists, challenging both political parties and increasing the number of good-paying jobs.

But Godat was surprised by the utter chaos that came with the president’s first month. He said it often felt like Trump and his staff were impulsively firing off executive orders instead of really thinking things through.

“I didn’t think he would come in blazing like he has,” said Godat, 39, who has three kids and works at the same aluminum rolling plant where his father worked. “It seems almost like a dictatorship at times. He’s got a lot of controversial stuff going on and rather than thinking it through, I’m afraid that he’s jumping into the frying pan with both feet.”

Of the six swing states that were key to Trump’s unexpected win in November, his margin of victory was the highest in Iowa, where he beat Clinton by 9 percentage points. Yet at the dawn of his presidency, only 42 percent of Iowans approve of the job that he’s doing and 49 percent disapprove, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll this month.

That support varies across the state: Here in eastern Iowa, it’s in the low 40s. It’s highest in northwest Iowa, where 55 percent of Iowans approve of the president’s performance thus far, and it’s lowest in the southeast corner of the state and the Des Moines area, where only 31 percent of Iowans approve, according to the poll.

* * *

While Iowa is still home to many strong supporters who say it’s too early to judge him, there are others who say they voted for Trump simply because he wasn’t Clinton. Many Iowans worry Trump might cut support for wind-energy and ethanol programs; that his trade policies could hurt farms that export their crops; that mass deportations would empty the state’s factories and meat-packing plants; and that a repeal of the Affordable Care Act would yank health insurance away from thousands. While the hyper-simplicity of Trump’s campaign promises helped him win over voters, they are no match for the hyper-complexity of Iowa’s economy and values.

As the temperature hit 73 degrees last Wednesday afternoon, Godat took his two sons — ages 3 and 15 — to a playground near the Mississippi. He has lived for most of his life in Clinton, a town of nearly 27,000 that is home to a major corn-processing plant and other manufacturers.

Hillary Clinton won the city by more than 2,000 votes — but Trump won Clinton County, which was one of more than 25 counties in eastern Iowa that flipped from voting for Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. That shift here and in other Midwestern states was largely driven by white working-class voters like Godat.

Godat commutes more than 30 miles south to Bettendorf, where he gets paid a base wage of $34 per hour to help prepare aluminum used for airplanes and cars. There’s a shortage of trained electricians, and last year Godat said he worked 600 overtime hours, bringing his total pay to about $110,000. His wife provides in-home care for the elderly.

Much more here.

Nixon’s former attorney sees ‘echoes of Watergate’ in President Trump’s first month

Cleve R. Wootson Jr., writing in The Washington Post:

In 1973, attorney John Dean sat before the Senate Watergate Committee and recounted the grimy details of the scandal that brought Richard Nixon’s presidency to a premature end.

Dean had pored over 600 hours of secretly recorded White House tapes and admitted he had been involved in strategic conversations about illegal activity. During the final months of Nixon’s presidency, Dean testified against the commander in chief — words that helped end a presidency and landed Dean in prison.

Now, 44 years later, the man who experienced presidential scandal up close says he has a case of deja vu.

Dean said in an interview aired Friday that President Trump’s first month in office — with its anti-media tirades and efforts to use intelligence agencies for political purposes — has “echoes of Watergate.”

“What I see and hear … are echoes of Watergate,” he said in the interview with Democracy Now. “We don’t have Watergate 2.0 yet, but what we have is something that is beginning to look like it could go there.”

Dean is no stranger to criticizing presidents. He has been a longtime Trump critic. And he has said that President George W. Bush should have been impeached. In fact, the title of Dean’s 2004 book is “Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush.”

But Dean said he sees a Nixonian patina in how Trump’s administration has tried to get the U.S. intelligence community to play down alleged ties with Russia. This week, several news agencies reported that the administration asked senior members of the intelligence community to counter stories about Trump associates’ ties to Russia.

According to The Washington Post’s Greg Miller and Adam Entous, the calls were made after FBI officials refused to do that.

Dean isn’t the only Trump critic who has made this comparison.

Much more here.

After delay and amid pressure, Trump denounces racism and anti-Semitism

Abby Phillip and John Wagner, writing in the Washington Post:

President Trump on Tuesday denounced racism and anti-Semitic violence after weeks of struggling to offer clear statements of solidarity and support for racial and religious minorities.

During a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Trump read carefully from prepared remarks decrying bigotry and specifically condemning a wave of recent threats against Jewish centers across the country.

“This tour was a meaningful reminder of why we have to fight bigotry, intolerance and hatred in all of its very ugly forms,” Trump said. “The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”

Scanning the piece of paper with his finger as he read, Trump praised the museum on the Mall for its popularity and said the exhibitions had left their mark on his wife, Melania, who had visited the museum a week earlier.

For a president who prides himself on a freewheeling approach to leadership, Trump’s demeanor on Monday was notably somber and disciplined. The appearance stood in stark contrast to the flashes of irritation he showed at a news conference last week at the White House, when he dismissed questions from reporters about his outreach to African American political leaders in Washington and his lack of response to a sharp increase in anti-Semitic incidents across the country.

The differing responses come as calls have been growing for Trump to respond to a wave of bomb threats directed against Jewish community centers in multiple states on Monday, the fourth in a series of such threats this year, according to the Anti-Defamation League. More than 170 Jewish gravestones were found toppled at a cemetery in suburban St. Louis, over the weekend.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, called Trump’s statement “as welcome as it is overdue.”

“President Trump has been inexcusably silent as this trend of anti-Semitism has continued and arguably accelerated,” Pesner said. “The president of the United States must always be a voice against hate and for the values of religious freedom and inclusion that are the nation’s highest ideals.”

On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer dismissed the idea that Trump has been slow to address anti-Semitism and racism.

“I think it’s ironic that no matter how many times he talks about this, that it’s never good enough,” Spicer said.

Much more here.