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Why won’t anyone on the Supreme Court stand up for Merrick Garland?

Robert Barnes at The Washington Post notes that the justices have been uniformly silent on the question of whether President Obama’s nominee should get a hearing before the Senate, likely because they’re worried that it would further politicize the institution. Barnes writes that Senator Chuck Grassley, the head of the Judiciary Committee, has been especially sensitive to any interference from sitting members of the Court, preemptively warning Chief Justice John Roberts last week against such a “political temptation.”

Grassley also rebutted Roberts’s assertion prior to Antonin Scalia’s death that the Senate’s increasingly polarized confirmation process had helped politicize the Court. “The confirmation process doesn’t make the justices appear political,” Grassley said. “The confirmation process has gotten political precisely because the court has drifted from the constitutional text and rendered decisions based instead on policy preferences.” He went further, “Many of my constituents believe, with all due respect, that the chief justice is part of the problem.” He said Roberts’s decisions “reflected political considerations, not legal ones.” He added that Obama was also to blame: “Not surprisingly, [the Court’s] approval rating has dropped most drastically in recent years following the president’s appointment of Justices Sotomayor and Kagan.”

It looks like it’s everyone’s fault but the Senate. For sure, Chuck.

March 28, 2017


The White House says it’s “not familiar” with the economic impacts of climate change.

The whole reason President Donald Trump is releasing a wide-ranging executive order today to dismantle a bunch of America’s climate change policies is because he says it will be good for the economy. On a call with reporters Monday night to discuss the executive order, one unnamed senior White House official said Trump is “not going to pursue climate or environmental policies that put the U.S. economy at risk.”

But when this official was pressed with the fact that climate change poses grave economic risks of its own, he froze. “I’m not familiar with what you’re talking about,” he said, challenging the reporter to show him the research. Here’s the full exchange:

REPORTER: What about all the scientists who are saying climate change is going to have adverse economic consequences—things like rising sea levels, more hazardous hurricanes—how do you address those economic arguments?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, you’ll have to talk to those scientists.  Maybe I can talk to you afterward.  I’m not familiar with what you’re talking about.  But again, the President’s policy is very clear about addressing—making sure we’re addressing the economy, providing people with jobs, and we’re making sure that EPA is sticking to its core mission.

REPORTER: Are you saying you’re not aware that scientists are concerned about rising sea levels or more violent storms might impact the economy—

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would want to see the research.  Sure, that would be good.  Show it to me.

Think about this for a second. The Trump administration is unraveling the best chance we have at slowing human-caused climate change, solely because he says it will improve the economy. But Trump’s advisers have apparently not considered how climate change’s impacts on agricultural productivity, human health, and property value will hurt the economy. Hell, they’re not even “familiar” with the idea that it might.  

This isn’t just some environmental talking point: Huge public companies regularly file risk disclosures saying climate change threatens their bottoms lines. Big insurance companies like Allianz, Liberty Mutual, and SwissRe warn the government must prepare for climate-fueled extreme weather events to avoid passing costs on to them. In the 2014 report “Risky Business,” bigwigs like billionaire Michael Bloomberg and former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson warn of dire economic consequences if warming isn’t tackled. By 2050, it says $106 billion worth of coastal property could sink below sea level, while crop yields could be reduced by up to 70 percent in some states because of extreme heat.

For a presidential administration that is basing its climate policy on the idea that it’s good for the American economy, these seem like ridiculous things to not be “familiar with.”

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Are Republicans seriously going to try to repeal Obamacare again?

On Friday, Paul Ryan said that Obamacare was “the law of the land.” Donald Trump indicated that he was going to move on to tax reform and that health care would be shelved. But on Tuesday—four days after the American Health Care Act was spared a humiliating, resounding “no” vote in the House at the last minute—there are signs that Obamacare repeal is still on the table.

Members of the Freedom Caucus spent the weekend saying that they weren’t ready to move on. On Tuesday, Congressman Mo Brooks, a member of the Freedom Caucus—the group that Trump blamed for blowing the Obamacare repeal bill—said he was planning on filing a discharge petition to force a vote on full repeal of Obamacare, an extraordinary move from a member of a majority party in Congress.

But Brooks may not need to. Later Tuesday morning, The New York Times reported that the White House is still pushing Obamacare repeal: “House Republican leaders and the White House, under extreme pressure from conservative activists, have restarted negotiations on legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act, with House leaders declaring that Democrats were celebrating the law’s survival prematurely.” Vice President Pence is leading talks.

It’s too early to tell how seriously to take this report. Congressional Republicans and the White House are indeed under an enormous amount of pressure from conservative groups who believe that they reneged on a promise to repeal Obamacare. (Which they did!) But they were under that pressure when the bill fell apart as well. The activist groups that are pushing for full repeal, as the events of the last month have shown, also appear to be at odds with the rest of the country—there’s no indication whatsoever that a different repeal bill would fare any better in opinion polling.

Republicans face an existential problem when dealing with health care: To please extremists they alienate many so-called moderates; while Trump remains popular with Republicans, his overall unpopularity weakens his ability to hold the congressional coalition together. That calculus means that for a bill to pass either chamber of Congress, let alone both, it would probably require Democratic support, which is simply not going to happen while Donald Trump occupies the White House.

Trump is also signaling that he wants to move on to infrastructure and tax reform—and to do both simultaneously. If true, he clearly doesn’t have the bandwith to do health care as well. And that leads to what is probably the inevitable conclusion here: The GOP is keeping the door open on health care to have something to run on in 2018, or at least to minimize the damage it took from the disastrous attempt to repeal Obamacare.

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The White House sure looks like it’s doing a cover-up of the Russia story.

Citing executive communication privilege, officials from the Trump administration tried to prevent former acting Attorney General Sally Yates from testifying before the House Intelligence Committee about connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, according to the Washington Post. Yates, who informed the White House that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had lied to the press and Mike Pence about the nature of his conversations with the Russian ambassador during the transition, was fired in February after declining to defend the Trump administration’s travel ban.

The Post received letters sent by Yates’s attorney to the Department of Justice, which describe the Department of Justice’s position:

The Department of Justice has advised that it believes there are further constraints on the testimony Ms. Yates may provide at the [House intelligence committee] hearing. Generally, we understand that the department takes the position that all information Ms. Yates received or actions she took in her capacity as Deputy Attorney General and acting Attorney General are client confidences that she may not disclose absent written consent of the department.

We believe that the department’s position in this regard is overbroad, incorrect, and inconsistent with the department’s historical approach to the congressional testimony of current and former officials. In particular, we believe that Ms. Yates should not be obligated to refuse to provide non-classified facts about the department’s notification to the White House of concerns about the conduct of a senior official. Requiring Ms. Yates to refuse to provide such information is particularly untenable given that multiple senior administration officials have publicly described the same events.’

It’s clear that the White House is trying to use executive privilege to block Yates from saying anything at all about her time as acting attorney general—a time in which she informed Trump that his very own national security adviser had lied to the administration about his contacts with an official representing a foreign government. Yates apparently informed the House Intelligence Committee on Friday that she intended to present it with information regarding Michael Flynn. Devin Nunes, the committee’s chair who is in hot water himself for being shady as hell, canceled the hearing the next day.

At the very least, this is the latest in a long line of examples of the Trump administration appearing to cover up ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. It’s still unclear if it is merely trying to cover up the appearance of complicity and wrongdoing, or if there’s something more serious going on.

The administration’s willingness to use executive privilege here is notable insofar as it suggests that it is taking the Russia-Trump story extremely seriously and wants to do everything it can to block it. This is, of course, what administrations do. But given the scope of this story—which now involves Donald Trump, Michael Flynn, Devin Nunes, Jeff Sessions, and Jared Kushner (and that’s only people who served in the administration!)—it’s increasingly clear that an independent commission is necessary. What’s ironic is that the Trump administration’s behavior only makes that commission more likely.


Donald Trump’s attempts at muddying the Russia scandal are extremely stupid.

Trump treated the tweeting public to a rare late-night barrage on Monday evening. Unsurprisingly, his recent troubles—the Russia scandal, which has been spinning out of control for weeks now, and the disastrous attempt at repealing and replacing Obamacare—were at the forefront of his mind. Trump’s tweets about Obamacare were predictable: He blamed the Freedom Caucus yet again for killing the bill, and he claimed, as he did a few minutes after pulling the bill, that Obamacare is collapsing (it isn’t). His tweets about Russia were stranger—and they continued the next morning.

So what’s going on here? Trump starts by rehashing the very, very old story of John Podesta, the Clinton Foundation, and the Russian uranium deal—a story that helped kick off the right’s anti-Clinton war back in 2015 and that served as a kind of grace note to Clinton’s eventual defeat in the 2016 election. That story emerged out of the book Clinton Cash, which was written by Peter Schweizer, the head of the Steve Bannon–funded the Government Accountability Institute. In many ways, the uranium story and Clinton Cash set the pattern for the attacks that Bannon and Trump would use against the Clintons: that they were part of a corrupt global elite that was undermining America. When Wikileaks released John Podesta’s emails in the summer of 2016, the organization would once again spotlight the Russian uranium story.

But that is a very old story at this point. Trump is also spotlighting a newer dubious story about the Clinton campaign and Russia. A number of rightwing sources have boosted a Daily Caller story that alleges that Podesta “may have violated federal law by failing to disclose the receipt of 75,000 shares of stock from a Kremlin-financed company when he joined the Obama White House in 2014.” This story relies on—you guessed it—Wikileaks emails and the Government Accountability Institute.

Trump is doing what he’s done for the last several years: He is signal-boosting dubious stories from right-wing outlets to muddy a damaging narrative. But this is not a particularly good time for Trump to be jumping up and down telling people to look at reporting based on Wikileaks investigations. He’s also reminding us that he is the president—not Hillary Clinton, not John Podesta, neither of whom have been accused of receiving help from the Russians in an election that they lost.

All Trump is doing is spotlighting his own, well-documented connections with the Russians. And he’s doing so at a time when there’s a news vacuum, following his health care fiasco. The Russia story already seems poised to rush into that vacuum—and Donald Trump is helping.

March 27, 2017


It looks like Devin Nunes messed up.

His bizarre press conference last week raised a host of questions: Why did the chair of the House Intelligence Committee rush to the White House to claim that the government had “incidentally” collected some of the Trump team’s communications in 2016? Why did he insist that these communications had nothing to do with the Trump team’s suspected ties to Russia, or Trump’s claim that he had been “wiretapped” by the Obama administration? Why did Nunes keep other members of the House Intelligence Committee in the dark? Why wouldn’t Nunes identify his source, especially after spending much of Monday haranguing FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers about anonymous sources leaking to the press? And what motivated him to hold the press conference, which damaged his already broken credibility as an impartial investigator and further emboldened those calling for an independent probe?

Over the weekend, more information emerged about the series of events that culminated in Nunes’s press conference. Nunes reportedly made a secret trip to the White House the evening before the press conference—the suspicion was that he went there to meet his source. On Monday, he confirmed that he went there but claimed he only did so “in order to have proximity to a secure location where he could view the information provided by the source.” He told Bloomberg he went to the White House because it was convenient: “We don’t have networked access to these kinds of reports in Congress,” Nunes said. But this is not true: As Jake Sherman reported on MSNBC today, there are secure facilities in the Capitol.

Nunes is saying that the optics are bad, and that is all there is to the story. Certainly, secretly visiting the White House while investigating the White House doesn’t look very good! Whatever the intention of his meeting or of the subsequent press conference, he’s bungled this situation. On Monday, Chuck Schumer upped the pressure and called on Paul Ryan to replace Nunes as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee—a new tactic and an escalation of previous calls for an independent commission.

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No, Jeff Sessions, sanctuary cities don’t make America less safe.

Speaking at the White House on Monday, the attorney general asserted that “when cities and states refuse to help enforce immigration laws our nation is less safe,” while announcing that the federal government will sever grant money to sanctuary cities.

In fact, Tom K. Wong, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego, came to the exact opposite conclusion in a study published by the Center for American Progress in January:

Crime is statistically significantly lower in sanctuary counties compared to nonsanctuary counties. Moreover, economies are stronger in sanctuary counties—from higher median household income, less poverty, and less reliance on public assistance to higher labor force participation, higher employment-to-population ratios, and lower unemployment.

Moreover, Wong points out, “local law enforcement officials have argued against assisting federal immigration enforcement agencies such as ICE. Assisting in federal immigration enforcement efforts can drive a wedge between local law enforcement officials and the communities they serve, which undermines public safety.”

It’s not just Wong who’s made these findings either. “No Evidence Sanctuary Cities ‘Breed Crime’,” at the University of Pennsylvania concluded in a comprehensive post last month. The website cited a separate study from the University of California, Riverside, and Highline College, which also noted that the well-established body of research showing immigrants don’t commit crimes at higher rates than non-immigrants.

Of course, none of these studies suggest that becoming a sanctuary city makes a city safer. But they make it abundantly clear that Sessions’s claim that sanctuary cities make America less safe is bogus.


Donald Trump is baiting the Freedom Caucus to shut down the government.

Trump’s last week in office was by far his worst yet—no small achievement, given that his first 65 days in office have been characterized by chaos, infighting, and incompetence. His failure to repeal and replace Obamacare means that he will most likely end his first 100 days in office with zero legislative achievements, despite Republicans controlling both the executive and legislative branches.

Trump’s response to the failure of Trumpcare was characteristically contradictory. On one hand, he signaled that he was ready to move on, that less than three weeks of health care debate was already too much, and that it was time to focus on tax reform. According to Politico, Trump was “less upset about the death of the health bill than he had been about the crowd size controversy at his inauguration.”

On the other hand, the White House spent the weekend playing the blame game (also: golf). And while Trump is clearly blaming everyone not named “Donald John Trump” for his failure, the House Freedom Caucus has emerged as the most public target of his wrath. He tweeted at them before the fateful non-vote:

And then again on Saturday after the bill had failed:

Hatred of the Freedom Caucus makes strange bedfellows. It was perhaps the only thing that ever brought Barack Obama and John Boehner together, however briefly. But by going to war with the Freedom Caucus—particularly by going to war with the Freedom Caucus over abortion—Trump is giving it ammunition in next month’s continuing resolution fight, which could shut down the government.

As Axios Presented By Koch Industries’ Jonathan Swan wrote over the weekend, “the conservative House Freedom Caucus—the group Trump blamed on Twitter this morning for killing his Obamacare replacement bill—will almost certainly make defunding the women’s health group and country’s biggest abortion provider a non-negotiable condition for it to support the government funding bill.” Trump’s attacks on the group for failing to defund Planned Parenthood in the Obamacare repeal will only further embolden them.

This is not, to put it mildly, the kind of move you’d predict from a supposed master negotiator, or from someone who has supposedly moved on to the next fight. Forget tax reform—the continuing resolution is most likely the Trump administration’s next big fight. And Trump is botching this one, too.

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Democrats are stronger than they’ve been since the election. Now they need to not blow it.

Following the failure of the American Health Care Act last week, the Democratic Party and the progressive movement are better positioned politically than at any point since Donald Trump’s surprise victory in November. The post-inaugural protests were heartening, the Women’s March was inspiring, and the ongoing Russian revelations continue to damage Trump’s presidency. But it was only Friday, with the complete collapse of Republican governance on what should have been the ultimate unifying issue for the GOP, that proved Democrats in Washington are truly relevant again.

As Politico reported Monday morning, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is particularly emboldened, poised to continue capitalizing off Republican divisions like Trump’s split with the hard-right Freedom Caucus. “The leader of the seemingly powerless House minority,” Politico’s Heather Caygle wrote, “might actually have some juice. ... The Democratic leader, known for her business-like manner, kicked off her heels on the Capitol grounds Friday, jumping up and down in her stocking feet with supporters.”

The challenge now, though, is for the party to wield its modest influence strategically—knowing when to shape the Republican agenda when possible and when to try to stop it in its tracks. In April, Democrats may find themselves in a tough spot: Congress will be charged with keeping the government open and raising the debt ceiling. But when it comes to tax reform, infrastructure spending, and certainly Trump’s signature wall on the Mexican border, the party should be ready to resist.

Keep in mind that Republicans aren’t talking about the kind of bipartisan tax reform former President Barack Obama used to float. The White House and House Speaker Paul Ryan are eying changes that would disproportionately benefit the wealthy, like abolishing the estate tax. And on infrastructure, Trump isn’t pushing for traditional public investment. He’s honed in on tax incentives for private companies—an approach doomed to fail since the whole problem with infrastructure is that there are simply some public goods the private sector doesn’t want to provide.

These are perfect opportunities for Democrats to hold their ground—and draw clear contrast with Republicans. The downside of this approach is getting blamed for obstruction, but as the Republicans proved during the Obama years it is usually the ruling party that gets blamed for inaction in Washington. Trump is already blaming Democrats for Republican incompetence, and progressives might as well thwart more of his plans in the process.


Jared Kushner’s “SWAT Team” to run government like a business reveals what he doesn’t know about government (and business).

The Count of Monte Cristo cosplayer was skiing when Trumpcare died—a good place to be, I suppose, given the fact that the Trump White House and Republican House of Representatives spent the weekend throwing blame around. But that doesn’t mean that Kushner is disengaging. Far from it. Only Kushner’s wife, Ivanka Trump, and maybe Steve Bannon can compete with Kushner’s influence in the presidential orbit. 

Despite having no history of public service and a business record that’s entirely dependent on inherited wealth and inherited proximity to power, Kushner’s fingerprints are all over the White House’s domestic and foreign policy (Kushner is Trump’s point man for China, Mexico, Canada, and the Middle East). And he’ll add another helmet: Late Sunday The Washington Post reported that Kushner would lead The White House Office of American Innovation which is (emphasis added) “viewed internally as a SWAT team of strategic consultants.”  

Uh huh. If you’re able to set aside the terrible and disturbing SWAT team metaphor, which you shouldn’t because it’s terrible, this is not a terrible idea in and of itself. The Obama administration started two startup-ish programs to bring digital innovation to the White House that have both made government programs more efficient without being disruptive—the US Digital Services and 18F. Neither of these programs, strangely, are mentioned in the Post’s report or by the White House, perhaps because it’s not entirely clear how Kushner’s SWAT Team will be different. 

The Office of American Innovation seems to be an outgrowth of the Strategic Initiatives Group, which Kushner worked on with Bannon, who famously said that his goal is to “destroy the state.” So, while the USDS has worked tirelessly to improve the functioning of the VA and Medicare, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Kushner’s programs try to improve the functionality of government programs—on the right, after all, “efficiency” is often a euphemism for “cutting budgets and staff.” If Kushner really wanted to make the White House work efficiently, he might start by hiring people—key government offices are currently empty. 

But the most revealing part of the Post piece about Kushner’s new role is this quote: “We should have excellence in government. The government should be run like a great American company. Our hope is that we can achieve successes and efficiencies for our customers, who are the citizens.” The idea that the government should be run like a company is not a new one—judging by Trump’s performance in his first nine weeks in office, it’s also not a good one. But this quote is revealing in that it has the relationship between government and the citizenry backwards: Citizens are not the government’s “customers,” they’re its bosses. 

But Kushner has other things on his mind besides making the government function like Fuddruckers. On Monday morning, The New York Times reported that Kushner is the latest Trump White House official to have obscured meetings with Russians—he apparently met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice, although the White House did not disclose those meetings. He’ll soon be taking a break from throwing flash grenades and kicking down doors in the federal government to testify before the Senate.