THE MORNING PLUM:
At a news conference in Warsaw on Thursday morning, President Trump tiptoed gingerly up to the edge of acknowledging that Russia did indeed try to sabotage the 2016 election. Our intelligence agencies have long insisted that Russia engaged in active, multifaceted efforts to tip the election to Trump. While declining to fully endorse the conclusion that Russia did meddle in our democracy, Trump did manage to simultaneously blame it on Barack Obama’s failure to act in the face of it.
Which gives rise to a question: Given this criticism of Obama’s inaction last time, and given that the intelligence community has also concluded that Russia will try to meddle in the next election, too, what does Trump’s administration intend to do about it? Surely Trump does not intend to duplicate a performance on Obama’s part that he derides as feckless, does he?
At the presser, Trump was asked point-blank by NBC reporter Hallie Jackson: “Will you once and for all, yes or no, definitively say that Russia interfered in the 2016 election?”
“Well, I think it was Russia, and I think it could have been other people in other countries,” Trump replied. He then excoriated Obama for doing “nothing” in the face of the Obama administration’s own conclusion that Russian meddling was underway. “The reason is, he thought Hillary [Clinton] was going to win,” Trump said. He has tweeted this in the past, but now has said it at a news conference in Eastern Europe.
Pressed again on whether he agreed with the “definitive” conclusion of his own intelligence agencies that Russia did meddle in the election, Trump said: “I think it was Russia,” but added, “I think it was probably others, also.” He said: “Nobody really knows for sure. I remember … how everybody was 100 percent sure that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Guess what — that led to one big mess. They were wrong.”
To be clear, it is of course possible that the intelligence community is getting this one wrong, too. Criticism of Obama’s well-documented inaction is also fair game, though it is questionable coming from a messenger who himself has steadily played down the idea of Russian meddling (which, again, the intel community concluded was designed to help him win) for many months. And let’s not forget that during the election, Democrats asked congressional Republican leaders such as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to present a united front against Russian meddling. They refused, with McConnell questioning whether it even happened.
But all of that aside, if Trump is going to fault his predecessor’s failure to act in the face of the intel community’s warnings, his own administration should face more media scrutiny as to how seriously it is taking the intel community’s conclusion that Russia will try to do this again — and what it is doing about it.
As I’ve argued before, Trump’s peculiar mix of megalomania and bottomless dishonesty has led him to conflate the question of whether Russia meddled in our election with the question of whether his campaign colluded with it. Trump has of course denied the latter, but that has left him unwilling to grapple seriously with the former, apparently because he fears that taking the possibility of meddling seriously risks legitimizing charges of collusion and could undermine perceptions of his legitimacy.
But Trump’s concession today that he believes Russian sabotage did happen — offered only on the condition that he can blame Obama for it, naturally — should intensify scrutiny on what he is prepared to do about Russian sabotage in the next election. The intel community’s January report concluded that Russian sabotage efforts directed at our elections have become a “new normal.” Former FBI director James B. Comey recently testified to Congress that Russia currently constitutes “the greatest threat of any nation on Earth” to our democratic process — notwithstanding Trump’s claim that unnamed “others” were also involved last time.
But what is the Trump administration doing about this? NBC News recently reported that “government officials and outside experts” have sent an “urgent warning” to the White House that “the U.S. may not be ready to stop Russia” from “interfering in our next election.” Experts quoted by NBC News said the United States needs to better coordinate with tech companies to blunt three expected Russian attacks, which reprise efforts that were made last time: the spreading of fake news, the hacking of embarrassing information about candidates and attempted cyberattacks on election databases. Yet NBC News relayed this worrisome information: “Dozens of state officials told NBC News they have received little direction from Washington about election security.”
All indications are that the threat to the integrity of our elections that Trump cares most about (or pretends to care about) is phantom “voter fraud.” What’s more, Comey also testified to Congress that he could not recall a single instance of Trump asking him how the United States might gird itself for future Russian efforts to sabotage our democracy. To be fair, the White House did insist to NBC News that steps are being taken to prepare for such efforts. But what are they? Trump’s comments today demand more attention to this question.
* KIDS IN PRO-TRUMP AREAS COULD LOSE UNDER GOP BILL: The Los Angeles Times has a great piece reporting that the GOP health-care bill’s deep cuts to Medicaid could have a terrible impact on children in rural areas that went for Trump:
In Fayette County and 779 other mostly rural counties across the country — the vast majority of which went for Trump — more than half the children rely for coverage on Medicaid and the related Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP … A growing body of research shows Medicaid leads to better health, improves children’s reading and test scores, lowers high school dropout rates and even increases future earnings … in small towns and rural areas with few other resources, Medicaid and CHIP are among the only things that keep many families from falling into those cracks.
As the article also notes, the uninsured rate among children has dropped to an all-time low, a major success, so we should of course try to undo that right away.
* RECESS ISN’T HELPING GOP BILL’S CHANCES: CNN reports that as many as nine GOP senators currently oppose the GOP bill, and the blowback during the recess isn’t helping:
The public opposition this week could make it that much more difficult for senators who are already against the bill — and others who are on the fence — to get to a “yes.” … Senate leadership is continuing to engage rank-and-file members on potential changes to the health care bill, according to a GOP leadership aide. Leadership has also been in discussions with the Congressional Budget Office, so that the agency can swiftly release a new score of the revised Senate bill.
The new CBO score will likely conclude at best that the coverage loss would be a few million lower than 22 million. Will that be enough to get moderates to cave?
* TENSIONS RISE AROUND TED CRUZ IDEA: The Hill reports that tensions are rising between GOP leaders and Sen. Ted Cruz, who wants to add a measure to the health-care bill that would weaken protections for preexisting conditions:
The proposal would allow insurance companies the freedom to sell any kinds of health plans they want as long as they also sell at least one plan that qualifies under the regulatory requirements of the Affordable Care Act. “I would say that if we voted on the Cruz proposal, it would be in the neighborhood of 37 to 15 against, 37 no votes and 15 yeses, and that’s probably generous,” said a GOP aide familiar with the Senate negotiations.
As Margot Sanger-Katz explains, Cruz’s plan would segment the insurance pool into healthy and sick, with the latter’s premiums soaring, leading to more government subsidies to cover them.
* HOPES OF A ‘TRUMP BUMP’ FADE: The New York Times reports that economists expect the economy to grow at a pace of no more than 2 percent this year, which is underwhelming compared to the smashing success Trump predicted his presidency would usher in:
While hardly terrible, it is not the burst of growth — a “Trump bump” — that many expected to result from an upturn in consumer and business sentiment after President Trump’s election. Mr. Trump himself declared upon taking office that his policies would produce 4 percent annual growth, and just this week said on Twitter to affirm that “things are starting to kick in now.”
As the Times notes, this is basically a continuation of the recovery we were seeing under Obama, which Trump depicted as a smoldering ruin.
* MAJORITY DISTRUSTS TRUMP ON RUSSIA: A new PBS/NPR/Marist poll finds that 54 percent of Americans believe Trump’s dealings with Russia have been “unethical” or “illegal.” But:
Only 4 percent of Republicans think Trump broke the law and another 15 percent said he acted unethically.
The total of 19 percent of Republicans who are dubious about Trump’s dealings with Russia is actually somewhat high, given how much we keep hearing about the base sticking with him.
* TRUMP FEUD WITH CNN TAKES NEW TURN: Michael Grynbaum reports:
White House advisers have discussed a potential point of leverage over their adversary, a senior administration official said: a pending merger between CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, and AT&T. Mr. Trump’s Justice Department will decide whether to approve the merger, and while analysts say there is little to stop the deal from moving forward, the president’s animus toward CNN remains a wild card.
Note that this comes from a senior administration official, who seemingly wanted this to be out there.
* AND STOP OBSESSING OVER TRUMP’S ‘BASE’: E.J. Dionne Jr. makes an important point about the constant excusing of Trump’s lunacy on the grounds that his base allegedly loves it:
Although Trump’s core supporters constitute a static or even shrinking minority, the punditry often endows them with a hallowed status enjoyed by no other demographic. Anyone who doesn’t “get” Trump’s appeal is said to live in a “bubble.” This means that a substantial majority of Americans are bubble dwellers, because Trump’s disapproval ratings have been hovering between 54 and 60 percent in Gallup’s most recent surveys.
Yes, but there’s an easy rejoinder to this: #FakePolls