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.

As Trump takes ownership of GOP health bill, support for it drops

Greg Sargent, reporting for the Washington Post:

THE MORNING PLUM:

The fate of the GOP health plan appears to hang in the balance, with GOP leaders still struggling to find the votes to pass it in the House. There is widespread disagreement both about the bill and its prospects for passage. But one thing appears to be widely agreed upon: President Trump has now “taken ownership” of this bill.

Yet Trump’s ownership of the GOP plan is not having the desired effect. It doesn’t appear to be moving many Republicans — indeed, GOP critics of it appear to be hardening in their opposition — and a new poll out this morning finds that support for it is dropping.

Trump’s ownership of the bill is being widely praised by some Republicans. “He’s all in,” gushed Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). “It was the right thing for the president to take ownership of it,” enthused Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.). Meanwhile, other Republicans report that Trump has made an aggressive pitch to them for the bill, arguing that they will face a voter backlash in 2018 if they don’t deliver on their promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

But NBC News reports that House Republicans are moving away from the bill:

Yesterday morning, we wrote that 17 House Republicans opposed or leaned strongly against the GOP health-care plan that’s scheduled for a vote Thursday. Then President Trump visited Capitol Hill and appeared to threaten GOP lawmakers …

After that visit, the number of Republicans opposing or leaning strongly against the legislation grew to 27, per NBC News’ count — when Trump and GOP leaders can’t afford more than 21 defections.

As the NBC First Read crew observes, it’s “clear that Trump’s arm-twisting hasn’t paid dividends — at least not yet.”

Meanwhile, a new Politico/Morning Consult poll finds that support for the bill has dropped six points among American voters nationwide, and more voters approve of Obamacare than of the GOP replacement:

Since the Congressional Budget Office released its cost estimate of the Obamacare alternative last week, showing steep coverage losses, the legislation’s approval rating has dipped six points, from 46 percent to 40 percent. Obamacare’s approval rating, on the other hand, sits at 46 percent, as it did in February.

Meanwhile, disapproval of the GOP bill has ticked up two points, for a total net swing against the bill of eight points. What’s more, the new Morning Consult poll shows that only 1 in 5 voters thinks it will decrease their health-care costs, while a plurality of 39 percent think they will increase. And note this:

Fifty-three percent of voters said they were less likely to support the legislation when taking into account the CBO estimate that it would lead to 24 million fewer people having health insurance in the next decade. And 59 percent of voters, including almost half of Republicans (49 percent), said they were less likely to support the bill because the CBO projects it could increase average premiums by 15 to 20 percent in its first two years after becoming law.

Majorities tilt against the legislation when told it would result in millions without coverage and would drive up costs, as the Congressional Budget Office has concluded.

More here.

Reality is creeping into the Trump show

David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post:

The House Intelligence Committee hearing Monday marked the end of the opening installment of “The President,” the must-watch reality/horror show that has transfixed the nation and the world. Now the plot gets more serious, perhaps darker, with some new characters likely to emerge in key national-security roles.

President Trump should be less of a stage hog going forward, and his Twitter storms less intense. He is often described as a narcissist, but he’s not suicidal. He knows he has been rebuffed in a public hearing that he can’t ridicule as “fake news.” With his approval rating below 40 percent, he needs to broaden his base. Trump wants to disrupt, but he also wants to succeed.

Trump and the nation would be well served if his two leading Cabinet secretaries, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, played more prominent roles. Trump needs the solid outriggers that Mattis and Tillerson can provide. This presidency is wounded at a time of potentially serious crises.

Mattis and Tillerson are stabilizers. They have both led big organizations under pressure, and they know what command is. Both have been moving cautiously in the early weeks, feeling their way and mostly keeping their mouths shut in public. They don’t like talking to the press, but in that they’re hardly alone among former chief executives and military leaders.

Mattis and Tillerson aren’t communicating much with the public, but they’re talking to Trump and to each other, while they figure out the strategic positions this administration will take on key issues. The two Cabinet secretaries try to have breakfast once a week, talk frequently by phone, and hash out common positions before each big meeting in the Situation Room.

These two know how to say no to Trump. Mattis famously did so on torture, and Tillerson did the same rebutting a presidential musing about abolishing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Mattis and Tillerson have three paramount tasks — matters of war and peace on which their advice will be crucial for a beleaguered president with big ideas but limited experience.

The first test is “eradicating” the Islamic State. Trump claimed during the campaign he had a secret strategy, but in office he has sensibly expanded the approach recommended by Gen. Joseph Votel, the Central Command leader, which focuses on capturing Raqqa, the Islamic State capital in Syria. Centcom favors using a militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is multiethnic but led by Syrian Kurds from a group known as the YPG.

U.S. commanders rightly argue that while the Kurdish warriors are anathema to Turkey, they’re the only hope for quickly seizing Raqqa. Turkey’s claims about an alternative Sunni militia known as the “First Corps” aren’t credible. Raqqa is an urgent priority: Terrorists there are hatching plots targeting Europe and the United States.

The message to Turkey should be blunt: Let the United States work with the Kurds to clear Raqqa now (and get them out afterward), or Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime will seize the initiative.

Much more here.

So far, Trump has been mercifully incompetent

Dana Milbank, reporting for The Washington Post:

“The world is laughing at us. They’re laughing at the stupidity of our president.”

Donald Trump, October 2016

Stupid is as stupid does.

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump remarked often on the stupidity of our leaders. He was under the impression that the rest of the planet was indulging in some sort of global guffaw at our expense. “How stupid are we? The world is laughing.” If so, what must the mirthful world think of our current state of affairs? This past week alone:

The House and Senate intelligence committees said they saw no evidence for President Trump’s wild claim that President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, and Britain protested that the White House falsely alleged that British intelligence was involved. White House press secretary Sean Spicer has been arguing that Trump didn’t mean wiretapping when he said Obama had Trump’s “wires tapped.” Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway suggested that eavesdropping could have been accomplished using microwave ovens.

Trump’s fellow Republicans pronounced his budget dead on arrival in Congress — “draconian, careless and counterproductive” were the words used by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), former House Appropriations Committee chairman — because it recklessly cuts (slashing the State Department by nearly a third and targeting Meals on Wheels for the elderly) yet still adds to the debt Trump promised to eliminate.

Legislation to replace Obamacare stalled in Congress and had to be rewritten because of a rebellion within Trump’s own party.

A judge halted Trump’s second attempt at a ban on travel from several Muslim countries.

And Republican lawmakers probing Trump’s ties to Russia threatened subpoenas over the executive branch’s stonewalling.

In one of the presidential debates, CNBC’s John Harwood asked Trump if he was running “a comic book version of a presidential campaign.” Now Trump seems to be running a cartoon version of a presidency, and he’s Elmer Fudd. His proposals could, if successfully implemented, be ruinous. But so far, at least, Trump has been mercifully incompetent.

He and the GOP-controlled Congress have been on the job two months, but he has signed only nine bills into law, none major. The only law so far this month: a bill naming the Veterans Affairs facility in Butler County, Pa. A McClatchy-Marist poll last month found that a 58 percent majority of Americans reported being “embarrassed” by Trump. For good reason:

Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, lasted just 24 days on the job after misrepresenting his contacts with Russia. Attorney General Jeff Sessions falsely testified that he’d had no contacts with the Russians, forcing his recusal from Russia investigations once the truth came out.

Trump’s nominee to be labor secretary withdrew in the face of broad opposition. His education secretary, who suggested that schools need guns to defend against grizzlies, was confirmed only when the vice president broke a tie vote.

Trump blamed a “so-called” judge for striking down his first travel ban and proposed blaming the court system if there was a terrorist attack; his own Supreme Court nominee called such remarks disheartening.

Trump conducted sensitive diplomacy over a North Korean missile launch with the Japanese prime minister surrounded by diners at his Mar-a-Lago country club, one of whom posted online a photo of the man carrying the nuclear football.

Trump, after inflating the crowd size at his inauguration and embracing a conspiracy theory that 3 million to 5 million Americans voted illegally, falsely accused the media of not covering terrorist attacks. The White House then produced a badly spelled list of attacks, most of which had been covered. Conway invented one attack, the “Bowling Green massacre.”

Conway pitched Ivanka Trump’s fashion line on Fox News. Taxpayers have subsidized millions of dollars’ worth of expenses related to Mar-a-Lago and the Trump sons’ foreign travel.

Trump marked Black History Month with remarks suggesting he thought abolitionist Frederick Douglass was still alive.

Trump opened a rift with Australia in an angry phone call with that ally’s prime minister. He provoked the Mexican president to cancel a trip to Washington, and he baffled the Swedes by alluding to fictitious refugee-related violence “last night in Sweden.” Britain postponed a visit from Trump in hopes that anti-Trump protests would cool.

Trump’s closest aides have leaked several accounts of him raging about the White House. His team is frequently caught off guard by his Twitter attacks, which have included shots at Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nordstrom and misinformation Trump heard on Fox News.

This tragicomedy adds irony when you consider that the main character is the same one who campaigned by saying “they laugh at our stupidity” and “we are led by very, very stupid people” and “I have the best words, but there’s no better word than ‘stupid.’ ”

Now the world has reason to laugh at us — because we’re with stupid.

US makes formal apology to Britain after White House accuses GCHQ of wiretapping Trump Tower

Steven Swinford, writing in the Telegraph:

The US has made a formal apology to Britain after the White House accused GCHQ of helping Barack Obama spy on Donald Trump in the White House.

Sean Spicer, Mr Trump’s press secretary, repeated a claim on Thursday evening – initially made by an analyst on Fox News – that GCHQ was used by Mr Obama to spy on Trump Tower in the lead-up to last November’s election.

The comments prompted a furious response from GCHQ, which in a break from normal practice issued a public statement: “Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitanoabout GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wiretapping’ against the then president-elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”

Intelligence sources told The Telegraph that both Mr Spicer and General McMaster, the US National Security Adviser, have apologised over the claims. “The apology came direct from them,” a source said.

General McMaster contacted Sir Mark Lyall Grant, the Prime Minister’s National Security adviser, to apologise for the comments. Mr Spicer conveyed his apology through Sir Kim Darroch, Britain’s US ambassador.

Mr Spicer had earlier repeated claims that Barack Obama used GCHQ to spy on Mr Trump before he became president.

“He’s able to get it and there’s no American fingerprints on it,” Mr Spicer said of the intelligence supposedly provided to Mr Obama by Britain.

“Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command – he didn’t use the NSA, he didn’t use the CIA, he didn’t use the FBI and he didn’t use the Department of Justice – he used GCHQ.”

More here.

The Trump administration certainly knows how to upset a critical ally.

‘People are scared’: Paranoia seizes Trump’s White House

Via Politico:

A culture of paranoia is consuming the Trump administration, with staffers increasingly preoccupied with perceived enemies—inside their own government.

In interviews, nearly a dozen White House aides and federal agency staffers described a litany of suspicions: that rival factions in the administration are trying to embarrass them, that civil servants opposed to President Donald Trump are trying to undermine him, and even that a “deep state” of career military and intelligence officials is out to destroy them.

Aides are going to great lengths to protect themselves. They’re turning off work-issued smartphones and putting them in drawers when they arrive home from work out of fear that they could be used to eavesdrop. They’re staying mum in meetings out of concern that their comments could be leaked to the press by foes.

Many are using encrypted apps that automatically delete messages once they’ve been read, or are leaving their personal cell phones at home in case their bosses initiate phone checks of the sort that press secretary Sean Spicer deployed last month to identify leakers on his team.

It’s an environment of fear that has hamstrung the routine functioning of the executive branch. Senior advisers are spending much of their time trying to protect turf, key positions have remained vacant due to a reluctance to hire people deemed insufficiently loyal, and Trump’s ambitious agenda has been eclipsed by headlines surrounding his unproven claim that former President Barack Obama tapped his phone lines.

One senior administration aide, who like most others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the degree of suspicion had created a toxicity that was unsustainable.

“People are scared,” he said, adding that the Trump White House had become “a pretty hostile environment to work in.”

A White House official rejected the notion that there’s a culture of paranoia.

Spicer on Tuesday emphasized that cell phone checks are not White House policy, and said that neither he nor others are still conducting them. “The only incident in which that occurred was limited to the one involving myself,” he said.

Trump has a history of overseeing pressure-cooker organizations rife with suspicion, setting up sophisticated surveillance partly to monitor employees at his properties, including at his campaign headquarters, where some campaign aides suspected their offices were bugged.

One widespread concern in the Trump White House: That career intelligence operatives are working to undermine the new president through a series of leaks of classified information.

Much of the suspicion is directed at the Central Intelligence Agency, which many Trump loyalists believe is targeting CIA skeptics who sit on the National Security Council. Some of them allege that the CIA was behind the damaging leaks to the press that culminated in the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in February, and that the agency has pushed for the removal of other staffers.

They also believe the CIA exaggerated security clearance concerns that led to the removal of a top Flynn deputy, Robin Townley, from the NSC. Last week, another top NSC staffer who had drawn opposition from some within the CIA, intelligence director Ezra Cohen-Watnick, was told he was being removed, only to have Trump overrule the decision, after Trump advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner intervened, two people familiar with the episode said.

Much more here.

The GOP masterminds behind Obamacare’s ‘death spiral’

Dana Milbank, reporting for the Washington Post:

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) says Obamacare is in a “death spiral,” and he should know: He’s the one who cut the power to Obamacare’s engines and pointed its nose downward.

President Trump says, ObamaCare is imploding and will only get worse,” and he should know: He’s the one who placed the explosives under Obamacare’s foundation.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), co-author of the GOP health-care bill, says of Obamacare: “We’ve arrived at the scene of a pretty big wreck.” And he, too, should know: He’s the one who dumped oil and tire spikes on the road.

This is some prodigious cynicism, even by Washington standards. In the past couple of months, the Trump administration and the new GOP Congress have done all they could to undermine Obamacare, and now that their efforts are beginning to succeed they’re claiming Obamacare is collapsing under its own weight.

The Affordable Care Act may or may not be in the death spiral Republicans have long craved, but it has definitely deteriorated since the Trump administration and the new GOP Congress assumed power. And no wonder: They sabotaged it.

They withdrew TV and online advertising encouraging people to sign up for coverage during the crucial period before the deadline. The White House issued an executive order and took other actions that strongly implied it would no longer enforce the “individual mandate” requiring people to sign up for coverage. And the constant promises of imminent repeal have spooked both insurers and individuals from participating.

Trump and congressional allies have, in short, created a self-fulfilling expectation of collapse. “What’s happened since the Trump administration took power is tremendous uncertainty about the future of the ACA,” said Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which conducts health-care research but takes no position on the law. “For people who were on the fence about participating, the future uncertainty pushes them over. Many insurers, meanwhile, were willing to suffer short-term losses with the promise of future profits, but if the ACA’s future is uncertain there’s little reason to stick around.”

* * *

Now opponents of the law are using the wreckage they created to justify their own plan, which the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects would cause 24 million more people to go without coverage than would have under Obamacare. It would dramatically cut coverage for poor and middle-class Americans, increase costs sharply for older Americans and give hundreds of billions in tax breaks to the wealthy and corporate interests. There would actually be more people without health insurance under the GOP plan than there were before Obamacare.

Confronted with the task of selling this cruel plan to the public, the administration and its allies are doing what they’ve done before: attempting to deny reality. They’re seeking to discredit the CBO, perhaps hoping people won’t recall that Republicans picked the man who runs it: Keith Hall, a conservative former George W. Bush administration economist .

Worse, they’re perpetuating the canard that Obamacare was collapsing on its own, leaving them no choice but to repeal it. Walden argued that “if we don’t intercede now, fewer will have access to insurance — period.” Ryan said the “law is collapsing” and asked: “Are we going to stay with Obamacare and ride out the status quo?” And Trump floated a fallback plan: pass nothing, let Obamacare fail and blame Democrats for it.

More here.

Health Groups Denounce G.O.P. Bill as Its Backers Scramble

Via The New York Times:

Influential groups representing hospitals and nurses came out on Wednesday against a Republican bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, joining doctors and the retirees’ lobby to warn that it would lead to a rise in the uninsured.

In a letter to lawmakers, major hospital groups wrote, “As organizations that take care of every individual who walks through our doors, both due to our mission and our obligations under federal law, we are committed to ensuring health care coverage is available and affordable for all.”

The groups, including the American Hospital Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Catholic Health Association of the United States and the Children’s Hospital Association, said they could not support the bill “as currently written.”

The hospitals and the American Nurses Association joined the American Medical Association and AARP, which rejected the bill on Tuesday.

House Republicans have been left scrambling to marshal support from businesses and other interests that stand to benefit from lower taxes if the bill passes. Insurers are on the fence, and other powerful forces like pharmaceutical companies remain largely on the sidelines.

Squeezed between wary health care providers and angry conservatives who believe that the bill leaves too much of the Affordable Care Act in place, the Republican leadership and President Trump appear to be facing an uphill climb.

But the White House appears increasingly confident about the prospects for a health care overhaul to pass in the House. In a meeting with conservative leaders in the Oval Office on Wednesday, Mr. Trump said he anticipated the most trouble in the Senate, where moderate and conservative lawmakers are opposing the plan for different reasons. He said he was prepared to pressure holdout senators by holding the kind of stadium-style rallies he led during his presidential campaign.

The House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, said Republicans were “going through the inevitable growing pains of being an opposition party to becoming a governing party.”

“It’s a new system for people,” he added. “But it’s all the more reason why we have to do what we said we would do and deliver for the American people, and govern and use our principles.”

More here.

Backlash grows against House GOP proposal to replace Obamacare

Mike DeBonis, Robert Costa, and David Weigel, reporting in The Washington Post:

Lawmakers prepared Wednesday for a marathon day sifting through a Republican proposal to revise the Affordable Care Act, which has met with widespread resistance from conservatives in and out of Congress, moderates in the Senate and key industry stakeholders since House GOP leaders released it on Monday.

The most imminent and serious threat to the plan crafted by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) was the growing backlash from conservative lawmakers and powerful outside groups who argue that the draft is nothing more than “Obamacare Lite,” a disparaging reference to the former president’s signature 2010 domestic achievement.

The lawmakers do not represent a majority of Republicans in either chamber of Congress, but there could be enough of them to scuttle any health-care bill they oppose — and several said Tuesday they intend to use that leverage to force major changes to the measures. Their efforts could begin Wednesday morning, when the House Ways and Means and ­Energy and Commerce panels begin taking up the legislation.

President Trump said at a meeting with House Republicans on Tuesday afternoon that he would work with them to secure passage of their plan.

According to several attendees, Trump made clear that he wants the House bill to be approved and land on his desk largely intact. He pledged to become personally involved in persuading skeptical lawmakers and warned that failing to pass the legislation would result in trouble at the ballot box for Republicans who pledged to repeal and replace Obamacare.

“The president said very clearly . . . this is the bill he wants on his desk, and he wants to get this done quickly,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), the House GOP chief deputy whip, who attended the meeting. “The president is paying attention to what people are saying and doing, where they’re saying it and doing it. He is highly aware and has a highly attuned ear to what is happening in the press and has a real understanding of the challenges in order to get this bill on his desk.”

As if to prove it, Trump targeted Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — who has emerged as the bill’s chief skeptic — with a tweet Tuesday evening: “I feel sure that my friend @RandPaul will come along with the new and great health care program because he knows Obamacare is a disaster!”

* * *

Following late-afternoon votes Tuesday, several Republican senators privately groused that they felt rushed by their GOP colleagues in the House and by Trump, who they said does not fully grasp the Senate’s slower pace or its concerns.

The senators also expressed skepticism that key White House officials with deep ties to Congress’s conservative wing would eventually be able to lock up the votes for the current plan. Instead, they said there is confusion over who is managing the process and which administration figures, if any, have power to sway Trump on the issue.

One Republican senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because negotiations are ongoing, said several senators are asking their leadership to “take it easy” in terms of the timeline, allowing space to debate and analyze the proposal with a “clear understanding of the costs involved.” “If that takes months or a year, so be it,” the senator said.

A second GOP senator said the party was making a “mistake” in its rollout by taking “too much ownership” of health care after years in which Democrats were identified with Obamacare.

More here.

The Trump Experiment may come to an early tipping point

E.J. Dionne, Jr., reporting for the Washington Post:

President Trump’s astonishing and reckless accusation that he was wiretapped on orders from President Barack Obama should finally be the tipping point in how the country views him and his presidency.

Obama, through a spokesman, said the charges were “simply false.” On Sunday afternoon, the New York Times reported that FBI Director James Comey had asked the Justice Department to publicly reject Trump’s claim. It appears that Trump issued his wild tweet storm Saturday morning largely on the basis of reports in conspiracy-minded right-wing media.

He signaled his lack of evidence first by reportedly pushing his White House staff to ransack sensitive intelligence information to find support for his claim. Then on Sunday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump wanted Congress to look into the matter and that the administration would offer no further comment.

Trump has a problem either way. If he was not wiretapped, he invented a spectacularly false charge. And if a court ordered some sort of surveillance of him, on what grounds did it do so?

Every time the issue of the relationship between Trump’s apparatus and Moscow comes up, he is moved to unleash unhinged counterattacks. This only underscores how urgent it is to get to the bottom of this story quickly.

We need to understand why those in Trump’s orbit who engaged with Moscow stick with lies and misdirection until the moment their falsehoods are publicly revealed. The truth has to be dragged out of them by the media, working in concert with those in government (a.k.a. “leakers”) who refuse to sit by while the system they serve is endangered.

* * *

The Post’s revelation last week that Attorney General Jeff Sessions misled the Senate about his two meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak came after Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, lied about the nature of his own Russian contacts. Flynn stuck to false claims about his conversations with Kislyak until The Post and other media blew them out of the water. Flynn had to resign.

Sessions’s convenient memory lapse (“I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians”) was especially jarring because it came after an inquiry from Sen. Al Franken in which the Minnesota Democrat did not even ask Sessions whether he met with Russians .

Franken’s query ended this way: “. . . if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”

Why did Sessions think he had to respond to a question that wasn’t even posed?

And during his news conference announcing his recusal from investigations into the Russia connection — Trump, by the way, was enraged because he didn’t want Sessions to pull back — the attorney general remembered many things Kislyak had said, but used the phrase “I don’t recall” five times about various other aspects of the encounters.

The Sessions moment was followed by the confirmation of previously undisclosed meetings with Kislyak, one involving Flynn and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, another with campaign advisers Carter Page and J.D. Gordon.

The crucial issue is how all this affects our national security. But this saga also reminds us that a crowd claiming to place “America First” does not really believe its own slogan. They place only about half of America first, the part that opposed Obama and supported Trump. When it comes to the other half, they feel only contempt.

More here.

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.

Jeff Sessions Had No Choice

Via The New York Times Editorial Board:

It’s no great credit to Attorney General Jeff Sessions that he finally recused himself from all Justice Department investigations relating to the 2016 presidential campaign — and specifically from all current or future inquiries into Russian attempts to influence the election. Short of tendering his resignation, he had no other real choice.

Mr. Sessions, who was President Trump’s first and most ardent supporter in the Senate, as well as a top national security adviser to the Trump campaign, was never in a position to serve as an impartial arbiter of any investigation involving Mr. Trump or his campaign. But until Thursday he refused to cede control over Justice Department investigations into contacts between the campaign and the Russian government.

That stance became untenable on Wednesday night, after The Washington Post reported that, while testifying at his confirmation hearings in January, Mr. Sessions had failed to disclose two meetings he had with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, during the campaign. In response to a question about connections between Russia and the Trump team, from Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, Mr. Sessions said under oath that he was “not aware of any of those activities.” Then, without prompting, he volunteered, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”

As it turns out, Mr. Sessions met twice with Mr. Kislyak, once at the Republican National Convention in July, and again in his Senate office in September — around the time that Russian efforts to meddle in the election on behalf of Mr. Trump reached their peak. Still, meeting an ambassador is no crime in itself, which makes Mr. Sessions’s denial even more inexplicable. On Thursday, he said he “never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries” about the campaign. Yet a Trump administration official told CNBC’s John Harwood that Mr. Sessions had talked about the election with the ambassador, if only in “superficial” terms.

Mr. Sessions is the latest administration official to be caught between his words and the truth on Russia. Just a few weeks ago, the president fired Michael Flynn, his national security adviser, for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.

Mr. Sessions’s recusal is only a first necessary step. The second must be the appointment of a special counsel — an independent, nonpartisan actor who can both investigate and prosecute any criminal acts in relation to Russian interference, whether by Mr. Sessions or anyone else. That’s the only way an investigation can have credibility with the public. Simply shifting investigative authority to one of Mr. Sessions’s deputies, who report to him on all other matters, would do nothing to cure the underlying conflict.

More here.

Trump to Ask for Sharp Increases in Military Spending, Officials Say

Via The New York Times:

President Trump will instruct federal agencies on Monday to assemble a budget for the coming fiscal year that includes sharp increases in Defense Department spending and drastic enough cuts to domestic agencies that he can keep his promise to leave Social Security and Medicare alone, according to four senior administration officials.

The budget outline will be the first move in a campaign this week to reset the narrative of Mr. Trump’s turmoil-tossed White House.

A day before delivering a high-stakes address on Tuesday to a joint session of Congress, Mr. Trump will demand a budget with tens of billions of dollars in reductions to the Environmental Protection Agency and State Department, according to four senior administration officials with direct knowledge of the plan. Social safety net programs, aside from the big entitlement programs for retirees, would also be hit hard.

Preliminary budget outlines are usually little-noticed administrative exercises, the first step in negotiations between the White House and federal agencies that usually shave the sharpest edges off the initial request.

But this plan — a product of a collaboration between the Office of Management and Budget director, Mick Mulvaney; the National Economic Council director, Gary Cohn; and the White House chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon — is intended to make a big splash for a president eager to show that he is a man of action.

Mr. Trump’s top advisers huddled in the White House this weekend to work on his Tuesday night prime-time address. They focused on a single, often overlooked message amid the chaos of his first weeks in the White House: the assertion that the reality-show candidate is now a president determined to keep audacious campaign promises on immigration, the economy and the budget, no matter how sloppy or disruptive it looks from the outside.

“They might not agree with everything you do, but people will respect you for doing what you said you were going to do,” said Jason Miller, a top communications strategist on the Trump campaign who remains close to the White House.

“He’s doing something first, and there’s time for talk later,” Mr. Miller added. “This is ultimately how he’s going to get people who didn’t vote, or people who didn’t vote for him, into the fold. Inside the Beltway and with the media, there’s this focus on the palace intrigue. Out in the rest of the country, they are seeing a guy who is focused on jobs and the economy.”

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.

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.