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Marco Rubio has a shot in Florida, if he can survive a brutal week.

A poll from Monmouth University suggests that Rubio has significantly cut into Donald Trump’s lead in the state—Trump was previously leading by nearly 20 points, and is now ahead by only eight—and that the Florida senator is winning early voters by a two-to-one margin. 

This is all very good news for Rubio, but it comes, as The Washington Post’s Philip Bump points out, with one significant grain of salt: “Rubio had been getting a surge of late deciders in early contests, but it seems as though his support isn’t quite as firm as Trump’s. Two-thirds of Trump’s supporters say they won’t change their minds, versus 55 percent of Rubio backers who say the same thing.” 

That lack of firm support could be a big deal. Rubio is set to get shellacked twice this week: First on Tuesday, where he’ll likely finish fourth in the Michigan primary, and then again on Thursday, at a Republican debate where all three remaining candidates will likely repeatedly call on him to leave the race. Rubio’s lead in early voting and his momentum in Florida may serve as a bulwark, but the “Rubio is finished” narrative is likely to gain steam as the week goes on. Early voting should bolster Rubio’s flailing campaign, but it may not save it. 

March 22, 2017

Why can’t Sean Spicer give a straight answer about possible treason in the White House?

At the White House press briefing, Peter Alexander of NBC asked the press secretary, “Can you say with certainty right now that there’s nobody working for this White House that is presently working in the interest of a foreign government?” There would seem to be only one answer to this question. But Spicer gave a remarkable reply, saying, “I can tell you that every form has been filled out.”

Spicer added that the White House “absolutely” trusts its people to fill out these “forms” correctly. He elaborated at length: “People are filling out forms. So to sit here and ask me whether I can vouch for, whatever it is, a few hundred people who have filled out everything, that would be ridiculous for me to stand here and suggest I possibly could. But what I can tell you is that under the penalty of law, every single person who has filled out a form, that is being vetted by whatever level of classification that they need to get by the appropriate law enforcement agencies or HR entities.”

This is a very odd response, to put it mildly, shifting from the question of foreign influence to one of proper documentation. On the day in which new evidence emerged of connections between Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and Russian oligarchs, Spicer did little to reassure those concerned about possible illicit ties between Trump’s team and foreign governments.

Devin Nunes, the guy investigating Russian election-meddling, is also providing political cover for Donald Trump.

Two days ago, Nunes grilled FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers during a House hearing ostensibly convened to investigate Russian meddling in the U.S. election—as it turned out, Nunes was more concerned about the source of leaks showing contact between Trump’s team and Russian officials, not the nature of the contact itself. Now, Nunes is engaged in a very strange bit of political theater. On Wednesday, he was told by a “source”—an anonymous source—that Trumpland’s communications after the election were “incidentally” collected by U.S. national security agencies.

Nunes insisted that the the surveillance, weirdly enough, was not related to Russia. Nunes then informed Paul Ryan of this development. Then, without briefing his colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee, he went to the White House to tell Donald Trump and do a press conference. Trump said that the information, which had nothing to do with his accusation that Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, “somewhat” vindicated his claim that Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower. “I very much appreciate the fact that they found what they found,” he said.

Nunes, meanwhile, also hinted that something nefarious was going—perhaps also orchestrated by Barack Obama. “Some of it seems to be inappropriate. ... I don’t know if the American people would be comfortable with what I’ve read,” he said.

So what the hell is going on here? The simplest explanation is that Nunes received a speck of evidence that could be packaged in such a way that, if you squint real hard, vindicates Trump’s paranoid tweets about being wiretapped by the Obama administration. He then rushed that information to Trump so he could use it as political cover. Nunes, despite admitting that the Trump transition team was not the “target” of surveillance and that Trump Tower was not wiretapped, could only have kickstarted his strange and bewildering string of events for that purpose.

It’s worth noting three things here. One, it’s possible that Nunes’s own communications were swept up, since he was a member of Trump’s transition team. Two, being caught up in surveillance by the U.S. government should be a cause for suspicion, at least to the head of the House Intelligence Committee. Third, Nunes is supposed to be investigating the Trump campaign’s relationship with the Russian government. He is justifying his behavior by claiming that the information is not related to Russia. But still, this doesn’t change the fact that a man that has been tasked with investigating the president embarked on a bizarre stunt seemingly for the sole purpose of insulating the president from criticism.

Trumpcare is flatlining.

For the Affordable Health Care Act to pass the House on Thursday, Donald Trump and Paul Ryan can only lose 21 Republican votes. But on Wednesday, over 25 members of the hard-right Freedom Caucus went to the White House and told Trump that they could not support the bill. They declared that he and Ryan would have to “start over.”

This is a crushing blow, near fatal, but the bill could still be jolted back to life. The Freedom Caucus is basically daring Ryan and Trump to send the bill to a vote—if Ryan and Trump call their bluff, it’s possible that some of the 25-plus Freedom Caucus members will come around, out of fear that they will be blamed for the bill’s failure and for obstructing the GOP’s promises to repeal Obamacare. However, the best assumption right now is that everyone will get blamed, with Ryan and Trump taking most of the heat. (It’s also possible that Ryan and Trump could conjure up some sweeteners to win over these members, but it’s very late in the game.)

It’s still too soon to declare Trumpcare dead. But coming just 24 hours before the bill goes to vote, this is very bad news for Trump and Ryan and good news for anyone who doesn’t want to see tens of millions of people lose their health insurance. Trumpcare has been in critical condition ever since it was unveiled, and now it’s flatlining.

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Erin McPike’s long-awaited dispatch about Rex Tillerson’s Asia trip is here, and it’s exactly what Trump wants.

The secretary of state sparked a media firestorm last week by allowing only one journalist, from the conservative Independent Journal Review, to join him on his first major diplomatic trip to Asia. The reporter, McPike, added to the controversy when she announced she would not produce regular reports on Tillerson’s official activities, saying her editors favored of a “longer piece” about the five-day trip.

McPike’s piece has now been published. There are a few revelations: Tillerson hasn’t yet spoken to President Donald Trump about what the State Department would look like under the president’s proposal to slash the agency by 28 percent. He also revealed that he didn’t want to be secretary of state; his wife pushed him to take the job. McPike covers Tillerson’s aversion to media access, but uncritically for the most part, suggesting that secrecy is part of Trump’s diplomatic strategy and that Tillerson is merely “uncomfortable” with being in the spotlight. The report doesn’t consider the possibility that the administration is hostile to transparency.

The biggest problem with the piece, though, is that it allows the administration to claim transparency while providing very little substance about how Tillerson plans to handle foreign policy issues. McPike could only do so much, given her expertise; she’s a beat reporter at the White House, not the State Department. But given her decision not to file pool reports, and her past claims that “being adversarial is a problem” in journalism, it’s no wonder that Tillerson chose to grant her exclusive access.

McPike hasn’t been particularly forceful in her own defense. In addition to the above tweet, she told MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Tuesday, “Sometimes you have to make a decision and go ahead with it.” Meanwhile, that decision has irked seasoned State Department reporters who have been attempting to ask Tillerson questions for nearly two months, to no avail. As former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele pointed out during the same Morning Joe panel, this kind of media infighting is exactly what the president wants—an example, in the The Daily Beast’s words, of Trump’s “divide-and-conquer strategy regarding the Fourth Estate.”

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DeVos-style school privatization is surging in the states.

“Lawmakers in at least 10 states are pushing bills that would expand or create new tax credit scholarship programs, education savings accounts and voucher policies,” Politico’s Benjamin Wermund reported on Wednesday. All of these efforts would undermine America’s public schools, either with direct taxpayer funding for private school students or tax incentives supporting private school scholarship programs. And though the bills are advancing independent of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, she’s already cheering them on—and pledging to bolster their efforts.

“It perhaps could be said that the selection of Secretary DeVos is, in part, the result of an increased energy and momentum in the school choice movement that has been building in states over the past six or seven years,” Josh Cunningham, an education policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, told Politico.

A growing body of research confirms that private school vouchers actually don’t increase academic achievement and end up failing the low-income students they’re intended to help. But vouchers remain a signature policy priority for DeVos, and Democrats are gearing up to fight back. Washington Senator Patty Murray, the ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, plans to tear into DeVos’s privatization agenda in a speech at the Center for American Progress this afternoon.

Donald Trump is learning that if you live by the stock market, you also die by the stock market.

Trump and his lackeys (particularly hated substitute teacher Sean Spicer) have used the stock market and, to a lesser extent, the consumer confidence index, as a kind of counter-approval rating. By nearly every metric, Trump is doing a historically terrible job but, at the same time, the stock market was soaring. So Trump and Spicer started presenting the stock market as Trump’s real approval rating.

That’s tempting to do, even though the stock market is only a rough measurement of how the economy is doing as a whole. (It also pretty much only benefits the very rich at this point, since most middle-class people had their stocks wiped out during the 2008 crash and haven’t re-entered the market.) In fact, the stock market was soaring on the expectation of things that Trump would do—deregulation, tax reform—not things he had already done. Now that he is getting stuck in the quagmire of health care reform, the market is dipping.

On Tuesday, the S&P 500 fell by 1 percent for the first time since the fall. Stocks slumped as it became more likely that failure to pass health care reform would imperil the rest of Trump’s agenda. Investors are coming around to what others have already known—that Trump is an almost unthinkably incompetent executive who can’t help but get in his own way. There are also signs that Trump’s tax cut, if it comes, will be “later and smaller” than expected, per The Wall Street Journal.

Every president touts market performance as proof that they’re doing a good job, even though it’s usually a pretty silly thing to do. But Trump is doing it more out of desperation than anything else—it’s literally the only thing that suggests he might not be doing a historically terrible job. On February 23, for instance, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the stock market is “absolutely” a “report card” for the administration.

On Tuesday, however, Sean Spicer tried to argue that it was unfair to use the stock market as a measure of Trump’s performance. But it’s too late to make that case! The Trump administration has already set up short-term swings in the stock market as a metric to judge his presidency. And Tuesday’s downturn was absolutely reflective of Trump’s performance: Sixty days into his first term, even the hyper-rich, the last group to stand by Trump, seem to be getting pessimistic.

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Trump’s constant falsehoods ensure that the drip of Russia stories won’t stop anytime soon.

Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, “secretly worked for a Russian billionaire to advance the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin a decade ago and proposed an ambitious political strategy to undermine anti-Russian opposition across former Soviet republics,” reported the AP on Wednesday. According to the report, Manafort also pledged to “influence politics, business dealings, and news coverage inside the United States.”

Manafort admitted in a statement that he worked for the billionaire, Oleg Deripaska, but denied that the work involved “representing Russian political interests.” Setting aside the fact that the distinction between economic and political interests in Russia is not as pronounced as Manafort would clearly like people to believe it is, this is simply not a credible denial.

The AP’s report contradicts numerous claims made by the Trump administration and Manafort himself, namely that Manafort never worked directly for Russian interests. This is part of a larger, amusing pattern. First, Manafort or others in Trump’s orbit deny any involvement with Russia. Then, when it becomes clear that they did, in fact, have some involvement with Russia, they make a more specific denial—until, of course, that denial is eventually refuted. Here’s Manafort in July, for instance:

And, despite denials from both Manafort and the Trump administration, there is quite a bit of evidence that Manafort’s involvement in the campaign did not stop after he was dismissed as chair, or even after Trump won the presidency.

There are still many unanswered questions regarding Manafort’s relationship to Russia—when (or if) his work on behalf of Deripaska ceased, what his relationship with the Russian government was during that period, and what Trump knew about all of this. The best-case scenario for Manafort right now is simply that he has a thing for oligarchs, regardless of their country of origin—and that’s not a very good scenario.

But most importantly, this is the latest in a string of arguments for a lengthy and robust investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to the Russian government, something that Republicans—including the ones tasked to investigate this issue in Congress—have been pushing back against.

March 21, 2017

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Can Paul Ryan do any better than John Boehner?

Nancy Pelosi can whip votes, and they called Tom DeLay “The Hammer” for a reason. John Boehner, however, who had a more laid-back legislative approach and a more insane caucus, could never enforce that level of discipline as speaker of the House, which helped contribute to the government shutdown of 2013, among other sins.

Paul Ryan, the current speaker of the House, is very different from Boehner. Whatever you think of the merits of his wonkish reputation, he is certainly more policy-oriented than his predecessor. Ryan has been speaker since the fall of 2015, but he hasn’t really been tested in that role yet. What we’ve seen from Ryan suggests a McConnell-ish willingness to be hands off without McConnell’s ability to cultivate loyalty and get things done. There has been nothing in these last 18 months to suggest that Ryan has any more control over the raucous Freedom Caucus than Boehner did, despite the fact that Ryan insisted that the hard-right group be nice to him before he assumed the position.

This week is Ryan’s first big test as speaker. He and Trump have laid out an ambitious plan to repeal Obamacare, essentially daring Republicans to vote against them. The problem with their strategy, however, is that it’s clear that they have much more to lose than any of Ryan’s members. With two days to go until the rushed vote, Ryan has his work cut out for him: 26 Republicans currently do not support the AHCA and the GOP can only afford to lose 21 for the bill to pass. Some members—like the aptly named archconservative Dave Brat, who unseated the weaselly archconservative Eric Cantor in 2014—are calling on him to delay the vote.

Ryan created this mess by deciding to ram health care through and by convincing Donald Trump that it had to go first. In the next two days, we’ll find out if that was a good bet. We’ll also finally have a pretty solid idea of what kind of speaker Paul Ryan is. And with 48 hours to go, Ryan looks more like Boehner than DeLay or Pelosi.

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Al Franken is exasperated by Neil Gorsuch.

Grilling the Supreme Court nominee in Tuesday’s Senate confirmation hearing, Franken raised the Case of the Frozen Trucker: Gorsuch has once ruled against a truck driver who, according to The Washington Post, “claimed he’d been wrongly fired because he ignored his supervisor’s demands by unhitching his unheated truck from its malfunctioning trailer and driving away in subzero weather in search of safety.” The Minnesota senator pointed out that Gorsuch’s fellow appeals court judges sided with the trucker. “It is absurd to say this company is in its rights to fire him because he made the choice of possibly dying from freezing to death or causing other people to die, possibly, by driving an unsafe vehicle,” he said. “That’s absurd.”

Then Franken delivered the line that capped the exchange and drew laughter from the room. “I had a career in identifying absurdity, and I know it when I see it,” he said. “It makes me question your judgment.”

This is just the latest memorable exchange involving Franken and Trump administration nominees. He exposed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s ignorance on fundamental education policy debates and did some fierce fact-checking of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his former Senate colleague. I’ve argued the Trump era is Franken’s time to shine, returning to his roots as a Saturday Night Live comedian and whip-smart progressive insult comic. There’s even evidence he’s coming around to the idea. The second-term senator recently told the Post he feelsa little freer to be myself, and so every once in awhile, something comes out.”

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Neil Gorsuch will be our first lit bro Supreme Court justice.

On Tuesday, midway through the second day of his confirmation hearings, Gorsuch did what Jason Segal, the smirky guy from The Office, and millions of bros couldn’t—he destroyed David Foster Wallace’s credibility. “We’re now like David Foster Wallace’s fish,” Gorsuch said. “We’re surrounded by the rule of law, it’s in the fabric of our lives.” Gorsuch was citing what now may be Wallace’s most famous work, his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, which has since become a kind of highbrow self-help text:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

Wallace is the lingua franca of a certain subset of overeducated, usually wealthy, extremely self-serious (mostly) men. Wallace’s bandana and occasional playfulness disguised this, but history has slowly revealed what has always been true, which is that David Foster Wallace was exactly the kind of person who would be into David Foster Wallace, just smarter.

Gorsuch and the sneakily conservative Wallace are peas in a pod. Wallace has quietly become a favorite of many archconservatives over the last decade: Scalia, the David Foster Wallace of Supreme Court justices, was also a fan, as is National Review’s Kevin Williamson, a man who mistakes facial hair for intellectual depth.

Of course, judging Wallace by the people who read him—even judging him by his own, often extremely regressive political views—is very unfair! Wallace wrote a long love letter to the IRS, after all, and can’t be neatly summed up, which is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness (it’s what leads him to be taken up by both Gorsuch and the satchel bros). Also, Girl With Curious Hair still bangs.

But this is the company David Foster Wallace fandom keeps now:

David Foster Wallace is essentially the same as skiing and cigars now.