THE MORNING PLUM:
The events of this week are revealing with a new level of clarity that President Trump and the White House have ventured far beyond unconventional levels of dishonesty. Instead, they are revealing on their part something more remarkable and challenging to our system: a kind of deep rot of bad faith — a profound contempt for democratic process and the possibility of agreement on shared reality — that is wildly beyond anything in recent memory and strains the limits of our political vocabulary.
The precipitating moment is the clash between the White House and the FBI over the ongoing investigation of possible Russia-Trump campaign collusion, and in this context, the New York Times has some remarkable new reporting on Trump’s mental state and the reaction to it of the people around him. They are absorbing the fallout, now that Trump’s tweets — in which he claimed that former president Barack Obama wiretapped him and that the Trump-Russia story was “fake news” — were effectively demolished by the testimony of FBI Director James B. Comey:
People close to the president say Mr. Trump’s Twitter torrent had less to do with fact, strategy or tactic than a sense of persecution bordering on faith: He simply believes that he was bugged in some way, by someone, and that evidence will soon appear to back him up. …
The president, people close to him have said over the last several weeks, has become increasingly frustrated at his inability to control the narrative of his action-packed presidency, after being able to dominate the political discourse or divert criticism by launching one of his signature Twitter attacks.
Let’s pause to consider how remarkable it is that those paragraphs appeared in a major newspaper. Trump continues to vaguely believe that what he tweeted will somehow be validated later, at least in some form. But at the same time, Trump himself is growing aware that his nonstop lies — or delusions, or self-deception, or whatever you want to call all of it — are failing him. And he’s frustrated by it. This is coming to us according to people close to Trump.
The way in which Trump made those charges about Obama; the way the White House subsequently handled the mess, by demanding that Congress investigate them after an internal search that turned up nothing to back them up; the way in which Trump continues to blithely dismiss the need to get to the bottom of Russian meddling in our election — all of those things are a function of something that is seeping into pretty much everything the White House is doing these days.
This bad faith — this deep contempt for process, fact-based debate and policy reality — borders on all-corrosive. It includes a frontal assault on the news media for accurately reporting on Trump’s inaugural crowd size, in defiance of Trump/White House lies about it. It includes Trump’s explicit exhortations to his supporters to disbelieve the news media and choose their own facts and reality instead. It includes the laughably slapdash process that produced the first travel ban, and the decision to delay the second one to bask in good press from Trump’s speech to Congress, even though it was supposed to be an urgent national security matter (never mind that the substantive case for it was undercut by Homeland Security’s own analysts).
It includes Trump embracing a health plan that would leave 24 million people uninsured after promising “insurance for everybody.” It includes the continued presidential trips to Mar-a-Lago, which use the power of the White House to promote memberships at the Trump-owned resort, sinking money into his pockets. As ethics experts Norm Eisen and Richard Painter detail, the broader pattern here is unprecedented — it isn’t just that the known transgressions reveal deep disdain for ethical norms; it’s also that the full scale of the violations remains unknown, due to Trump’s own lack of transparency.
It should be stated that the White House may rack up wins that make these early contretemps look less consequential in retrospect. Republicans may push through a repeal-and-replace bill; the travel ban may survive the courts; Neil Gorsuch may get confirmed to the Supreme Court; Trump and Republicans may get a budget through, including deep tax cuts for the rich; and so forth. Those could easily end up resetting the narrative.
But the FBI investigation will continue overshadowing the Trump presidency. And in the present moment, the Comey takedown — a brutal institutional debunking of one of Trump’s and the White House’s highest-visibility moments of pure contempt for norms and process — has exposed the deep rot of bad faith in a new way. And this could have consequences. It could help inspire an escalation in institutional pushback — from the courts, the media, government leakers and civil society — that exercises a further constraining effect.
If the sources who spoke to the Times are to be believed, Trump is already reportedly frustrated that his showmanship and improvisational approach to reality are failing him. One shudders to imagine how he will react to more serious setbacks.
* AWESOME TIMING! TILLERSON TO SKIP NATO VISIT: Reuters scoops that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will skip a meeting with NATO ministers next month in order to visit China, and will head to Russia in April. As Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel puts it:
“I cannot fathom why the Administration would pursue this course except to signal a change in American foreign policy that draws our country away from western democracy’s most important institutions and aligns the United States more closely with the autocratic regime in the Kremlin.”
It probably won’t inspire confidence that this comes after the news that the FBI is probing possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
* GOP TOSSES OUT LAST-DITCH CHANGES TO HEALTH-CARE BILL: House Republicans are tweaking their repeal-and-replace bill to try to get it through the House. Here are a few of the changes, summarized by Vox:
- A change in the tax deductibility of medical expenses that the Senate could harness to boost tax credits for older Americans, to the tune of an estimated $85 billion
- More flexibility for states to add work requirements to Medicaid
- More flexibility for states to take their Medicaid funding as a lump-sum block grant rather than a per-person check
- Accelerating the repeal of Obamacare’s tax increases by one year
- States that haven’t accepted Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion will no longer have the opportunity to do so
Faster tax cuts for the rich and more restrictions on Medicaid to placate conservatives, and the promise of more spending on older Americans to placate moderates. Even so, House conservatives are predicting it still can’t pass.
* CHANGE TO HEALTH BILL SEEMS PRETTY DUBIOUS: The Post notes an interesting detail about the change to the bill designed to make it more generous to older people:
House leaders said they intended to provide another $85 billion of aid to those ages 50 to 64, but the amendment unveiled late Monday did not do so directly. Instead, the leaders said, it “provides the Senate flexibility to potentially enhance the tax credit” for the older cohort by adjusting an unrelated tax deduction.
That workaround, aides said, was done to ensure that the House bill would comply with Senate budget rules and to ensure that the CBO could release an updated analysis of the legislation before the Thursday vote.
Oh. So this change isn’t actually in the measure, and House moderates voting for it will have to do so on faith that the Senate will do this later, possibly leaving them on the hook for this vote.
* IN KENTUCKY, TRUMP BASKS IN ADULATION: Trump held a rally in Kentucky on Monday night, and the Times relays these details:
For Mr. Trump, who is enduring one of the most difficult stretches of his young presidency, the rally was a chance to bathe in the adulation of a campaign crowd, a sea of people waving placards that said: “Buy American. Hire American” and “Promises Made. Promises Kept.”
Promises kept! To his supporters, it does not matter that Trump’s agenda is all but stalled on multiple fronts. Alternative facts are useful!
* A DETAILED ROGER STONE TIMELINE: CNN offers up a detailed timeline of public statements by Roger Stone about his backchannel communications with WikiLeaks, which will get renewed scrutiny amid news of the FBI probe. Conclusion:
Stone has repeatedly and publicly denied that he had any contact with Russian officials during the campaign. … But Stone’s many statements have fueled suspicions that figures in Trump’s orbit played a role in releases of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.
Though it’s not conclusive, the timeline seems to show that Stone may have known in advance about multiple WikiLeaks data dumps.
* BANNON’S STORY ABOUT HIS DAD HAS A HOLE IN IT: Stephen K. Bannon loves to say his father’s loss of money in the 2008 crash turned him into a “populist” and “economic nationalist.” Richard Cohen raises an objection:
If Wall Street picked his old man’s pocket, why has President Trump appointed tycoon after tycoon who think the fairest tax is none at all and, in some cases, got immensely rich by collapsing companies and squeezing employees? … The Trump administration … wants to roll back the Dodd-Frank financial reform, which, among other things, created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose name tells you all you need to know about its purpose.
Maybe someone with access to Bannon should ask him about this.
* AND THE QUOTE OF THE DAY, SO-MUCH-WINNING EDITION: Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley assesses the state of the Trump presidency:
“This is the most failed first 100 days of any president. To be as low as he is in the polls, in the 30s, while the FBI director is on television saying they launched an investigation into your ties with Russia, I don’t know how it can get much worse.”
Oh, it can get a lot worse, we suspect — not just for Trump, but for all the rest of us.