U.S. Government & governance 2017 – 18

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Eight Political Scientists Who Will Make Sense of 2017
Presidential memoranda vs. executive orders. What’s the difference?
What Trump Can and Can’t Do to Dismantle Obama’s Climate Rules
A Definitive Guide to the G.O.P. Insiders Enabling Donald Trump
From Paul Ryan to John McCain, Sarah Ellison takes a look at the men
— and the motives— that are propping up a Donald Trump presidency.

U.S. Government & governance 2017 – the first six months

16 March
Andrew McCabe, Trump’s foil at the FBI, is fired hours before he could retire
The bureau’s former No. 2 became a lightning rod in the political feud surrounding its probes of Hillary Clinton’s email use and President Trump’s alleged Russia ties.
(WaPost) The move will likely cost Mc­Cabe a significant portion of his retirement benefits, though it is possible he could bring a legal challenge. He responded on Friday night with a lengthy statement, claiming he was being targeted because he was a witness in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia and asserting that his actions were appropriate.
The Atlantic : Less than a week after he fired Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, several reports indicate that President Trump is planning to replace his national-security adviser, H.R. McMaster, but the White House says no immediate changes are planned. Meanwhile, writes Peter Beinart, Trump’s choice of Mike Pompeo as the new secretary of state could mean moderate-Republican foreign policy is on its way out, and that a leader with a worrying history of statements about Muslims is on his way in.
No Heads Rolled at the White House on Friday. But Anxiety Abounds.
(NYT) John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, who is himself reported to be on thin ice with the president, reassured senior members of the White House staff on Friday morning that “there were no immediate [whatever that means] personnel changes at this time.”

13 March
Rex Tillerson Out as Trump’s Secretary of State, Replaced by Mike Pompeo
(NYT) It was an abrupt end — after months of speculation — to a rocky tenure for a former oil executive who never meshed with the president who hired him. Mr. Tillerson clashed repeatedly with the White House staff and broke publicly with Mr. Trump on issues ranging from the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the American response to Russia’s cyber aggression.
White House fires top Tillerson aide who contradicted account of secretary of state’s dismissal
Steve Goldstein, top spokesman for fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, himself was fired Tuesday for contradicting the official Trump administration account of Tillerson’s dismissal.
Trump’s personal assistant John McEntee also was reportedly fired Tuesday.

ICE spokesman resigns, citing fabrications by agency chief, Sessions about Calif. immigrant arrests
(WaPost) The San Francisco spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has resigned over what he described as “false” and “misleading” statements made by top-ranking officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and ICE Acting Director Thomas D. Homan.
The now-former spokesman, James Schwab, told news outlets late Monday that his resignation stemmed from statements by Homan and Sessions that potentially hundreds of “criminal aliens” evaded ICE during a Northern California raid in February because Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf warned the immigrant community in advance.

7 March
Bret Stephens: Gary Cohn’s Breaking Point
(NYT) His departure demolishes three theories, cherished by administration apologists, as to why the Trump presidency will be a success (or at the least not a disaster) despite the temperament of the man at the top.
Theory No. 1: The grown-ups are in charge. Theory No. 2: Trump doesn’t believe his own crazy rhetoric. Theory No. 3: Serious Republicans will contain Trump’s follies.

6 March
Republicans Can’t Stop Trump’s Trade War
Congress has the power to block the president’s proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum. Why aren’t lawmakers using it?
(The Atlantic) The hastily arranged announcement horrified the veteran free-traders who lead the GOP in Congress: not only House Speaker Paul Ryan, but also the chairmen of the House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over trade, Kevin Brady of Texas and Orrin Hatch of Utah, respectively. Trump has rebuffed the efforts by Republican lawmakers and some of his own advisers to slow his drive for tariffs, and GOP leaders appear to lack either the will or the votes in Congress to block him legislatively.
The Republican leaders fear a trade war that would dampen the economic benefits of their tax cuts, which the GOP is depending on to stave off heavy losses in November’s midterm congressional elections. Republicans were clearly hoping the White House would roll back Trump’s announcement over the weekend, either by putting off the tariffs or by making clear that key U.S. trading partners would be exempted.
… Congress could stop Trump from imposing the tariffs tomorrow if it wanted to. The Constitution gives the legislative branch explicit authority “to regulate commerce with foreign nations.” And just last month, on a 400 to 2 vote, the House passed legislation that extends for three years a program that reduces various tariffs for businesses.
But over the last 50 years, Congress has delegated the bulk of its trade power to the president, and there isn’t much expectation that it’ll wrest it back anytime soon.

5 March
Republicans in Congress look to keep a low profile
(AP) Republicans in Washington feel good about the effect their overhaul of the nation’s tax code is having on the economy, and recent polling suggests it’s getting more popular as the midterm elections draw closer. But looking ahead to other potential legislation to boast about in hopes of boosting GOP chances of retaining control of the House and Senate, the agenda is pretty thin.
President Donald Trump’s trillion-dollar-plus plan to boost infrastructure has landed with a thud. Hopes in the House of taking on welfare reform seem likely to fizzle in the Senate. And issues like immigration and now even gun control invite internal GOP divisions at the height of primary season. Repealing and replacing former President Barack Obama’s health care law is off the table.
Instead, the GOP-controlled Congress is looking ahead to a year of abbreviated workweeks and low-profile and small-bore initiatives. The House is spending more and more time on the obscure and the arcane; the Senate chamber is being turned over for weeks at a time to routine nominations.
Instead of repealing “Obamacare,” lawmakers are promising bipartisan legislation to free smaller banks from stricter regulations passed in 2010, fund the fight against opioids, and implement the party’s promise for a huge military buildup.
As Congress moves to drop tariffs, some U.S. firms cry foul

16 February
New White House security clearance policy could put ‘bull’s eye’ on Kushner
It is not clear how Kushner could perform his job without a high-level security clearance.
(WaPost) White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly announced Friday that beginning next week, the White House will no longer allow some employees with interim security clearances access to top-secret information — a move that could threaten the standing of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law.
Kushner, a senior adviser to the president, has been able to see some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets even as his background investigation has dragged on for more than a year.
The changes were prompted by intense scrutiny that has followed domestic-abuse allegations against Rob Porter, the president’s former staff secretary, who was also working under an interim top-secret clearance. Dozens of other White House personnel also work under interim clearances, although not all of them are at the top-secret level.

30 January
A Historically Unpopular President Addresses the State of the Union
By Benjamin Wallace-Wells
(The New Yorker) Trump will reportedly detail his bargaining position on immigration (in which he would accede to permanent legal protections for the Dreamers in exchange for a dramatic expansion of funding for border security and sharp reductions in legal immigration) and unveil the infrastructure project that is meant to be his Administration’s major legislative ambition in 2018. Both of these are gestures at bipartisanship, but the details of his immigration position have made Democrats livid, and the meager federal funding proposed for his infrastructure plan has left them cold. The opposition has been winning elections, and the chance to argue with Trump is so enticing that the State of the Union will be followed by five separate Democratic addresses in opposition.

Trump upstages his State of the Union address with a meltdown over the Justice Department
(WaPost) Reports are disturbing insofar as they paint a picture of a vengeful president who is out of control and of a chief of staff, John F. Kelly, helping President Trump to muscle McCabe out of his post. Bloomberg reports:
Trump erupted in anger while traveling to Davos after learning that Associate Attorney General Stephen Boyd warned that it would be “extraordinarily reckless” to release a classified memo written by House Republican staffers. The memo outlines alleged misdeeds at the FBI and Justice Department related to the Russia investigation.
For Trump, the letter was yet another example of the Justice Department undermining him and stymieing Republican efforts to expose what the president sees as the politically motivated agenda behind Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe

29 January
(The Atlantic) Administration Mysteries: FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe is stepping down several weeks ahead of his planned retirement, which was expected in March. Though it’s not yet clear what prompted the change, it may come as welcome news to President Trump, who has attacked McCabe on Twitter and indicated that he distrusts him. The abrupt exit comes in the midst of heated controversy over a memo authored by Representative Devin Nunes, which reportedly argues that the Justice Department may have obtained an improper warrant to surveil Carter Page, one of the president’s campaign advisers. And that controversy, in turn, is overshadowed by Nunes’s history.

19 January
Government funding expires amid furious negotiations
Most Democrats and a handful of Republicans voted down a four-week extension of government funding
Updated 01/20/2018 12:38 AM ES
(Politico) Funding for the federal government lapsed Saturday as the Senate tried fruitlessly to negotiate a deal to keep the government open, prompting a shutdown on the first anniversary of President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
On a 50-49 vote that closed shortly after midnight, the Senate rejected a patchwork funding measure that would stave off a shutdown for four more weeks. Most Senate Democrats and a small handful of Republicans voted to filibuster the House-passed bill.
The failed vote led to the first official shutdown since October 2013. It came after Trump summoned Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to the White House earlier Friday in hopes of an agreement.
“If there’s any good news, it’s a weekend,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters after a House Democratic leadership meeting Friday night. “If we act tomorrow as I think we could, and I think we should, and reach compromises, then we could pass something before the weekend ends and the impact would be minimal.”
(Wa Post) Massive confusion spreads through federal bureaucracy ahead of shutdown deadline
Government shutdown looms as stopgap spending measure appears likely to stall in the Senate
(LA Times) The current spending authority for government operations ends after midnight Friday. If not extended, hundreds of thousands of federal workers would be furloughed and many — but not all — government offices would be shut down.
GOP leaders had been racing to cobble together what would be their fourth short-term funding bill since last fall.
The proposed extension to Feb. 16 included six years of additional funding authorization for the Children’s Health Insurance Program for working-class kids, a provision added to help attract Democratic votes.
Democrats are angry that the GOP bill lacks protections for Dreamers, young immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents. Trump has said he will end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which offered the immigrants protection from deportation and work permits.
Though Trump has said he wants to help Dreamers, he is also trying to get funding for his border wall with Mexico along with other immigration law changes in return. Talks on immigration continued Thursday behind closed doors.
(NYT) These Factions in Congress, Split Over ‘Dreamers,’ Could Lead to Government Shutdown

Keith Boag: Money man
Reclusive U.S. billionaire Robert Mercer helped Donald Trump win the presidency. But what is his ultimate goal?
(CBC) Often cited among the accomplishments of the Trump administration’s first year are the number of regulations that have been eliminated in the name of freeing businesses to create jobs. But the real shrinking of the role of government has been in Trump’s choice of cabinet members, whose aim seems to be to assail the policy goals of their departments.
Thus, the secretary of energy is someone who once campaigned to get rid of the Energy Department; the Secretary of Education has advocated against the public schools system; the Environmental Protection Agency director has a record of repeatedly suing the EPA; and the Attorney General has a reputation for opposing the expansion of civil rights.
Other departments are reportedly withering from neglect, as key positions are filled by unqualified people or not filled at all. The tax cut bill passed in December is forecast to add about a trillion dollars to the federal deficit, forcing further restraint on future governments.
It’s hard to imagine that Mercer would be unhappy about any of that given his thoughts about the size of government and the observation that he “wants it all to fall down” — and especially since his daughter Rebekah was part of the transition team that helped Trump choose his cabinet.

15 January
As Shutdown Talk Rises, Trump’s Immigration Words Pose Risks for Both Parties
(NYT) President Trump’s incendiary words about immigration have dampened the prospects that a broad spending and immigration deal can be reached by the end of the week, raising the possibility of a government shutdown with unknown political consequences for lawmakers in both parties.
Democrats facing re-election in states that Mr. Trump carried in 2016 fear that a government funding crisis, precipitated by an immigration showdown, could imperil their campaigns. And they are growing increasingly uneasy that liberal colleagues eyeing White House bids are demanding that any spending bill beyond a stopgap measure that expires on Jan. 19 include protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.
But Republicans face their own uncertainties. With their party controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, they could receive most of the blame for a shutdown, even if Senate Democrats effectively block a spending plan that does not extend the immigrant protections of an Obama-era program known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

8 January
House Foreign Affairs chairman to retire
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) announced Monday he will retire at the end of the year.
Royce is now the eighth House panel chairman to opt against seeking reelection in 2018.
… He also would have had to return to the House as a rank-and-file member and relinquish his Foreign Affairs gavel due to the GOP’s rules limiting chairmen to three consecutive terms.

6 January

Trump, GOP lawmakers huddle at Camp David
By Jill Colvin and Andrew Taylor
(AP) — Emerging from closed-door meetings with Republican leaders, President Donald Trump on Saturday held out the prospect of a deal with Democrats on the fate of young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children but appeared to put a welfare system overhaul — once a top White House priority — on the back burner.
Trump spent much of Friday and Saturday morning hashing out his 2018 agenda with GOP House and Senate leaders, top White House aides and select Cabinet members at the presidential retreat at Camp David. He described the sessions as “incredible” and “perhaps transformative in certain ways.”
A long list of high-stakes topics were on the agenda, from national security and infrastructure to the budget and 2018 midterm election strategy. Though Democrats were not included in the discussions, the leaders — some dressed casually in jeans, khakis and sweaters — said they were optimistic that more Democrats would be working with Republicans
It’s a reflection of reality: Republicans hold a razor-thin majority in the Senate and will need Democrats’ support to push through most legislation. It’s unclear, however, the extent to which Trump is willing to work with Democrats to achieve that goal.
Trump, for instance, declared Saturday that he will not sign legislation protecting hundreds of thousands of young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children unless Congress agrees to fund his promised border wall as well as overhaul the legal immigration system. Trump last year ended the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shielded more than 700,000 people from deportation and gave then the right to work legally in the country, and gave Congress until March to find a fix.
Trump said any deal must stop immigrants from being able to sponsor their extended family members and must end the diversity visa lottery, which draws immigrants from under-represented parts of a world . That’s in addition to funding for the southern border wall, a deeply unpopular idea among Democrats.
The administration on Friday unveiled a 10-year, $18 billion request for the wall that roiled the immigration talks and infuriated Democrats who’ve spent months in negotiations, increasing the prospect of a government shutdown.
But Trump appeared oblivious to the anger on Saturday. “We hope that we’re going to be able to work out an arrangement with the Democrats,” he said. “It’s something, certainly, that I’d like to see happen.”
Republicans are eager to build on the victory achieved late last year with the overhaul of the nation’s tax code. But before moving on to infrastructure and other items, Trump and his GOP allies first must navigate a tricky landscape of leftover legislation from last year that promises to test party unity in the coming weeks.

Ross Douthat: Trump’s Petticoat Government
(NYT) … the big question is organizational, managerial, and psychological: Can the people who surround Donald Trump work around his incapacity successfully enough to keep his unfitness from producing a historic calamity?
They have done so for a year, with some debacles (Puerto Rico) but also some genuine successes (the defeat of the Islamic State). People may laugh at Wolff’s assertion that “the men and women of the West Wing, for all that the media was ridiculing them, actually felt they had a responsibility to the country,” and for some figures (perhaps especially in the press office) the laughter will be justified. But for others the work has been necessary and important, and the achievement of relative stability a genuine service to the United States.
Can it continue in the face of some greater crisis than Trump has yet confronted? Can it continue if the Democrats take a share of power or if the president’s own family faces legal jeopardy? Is the American system more able to correct for presidential incapacity than some of us have feared?

1 January
White House aides already anxious about 2018
Senior staff are looking down the pike of a difficult year, from the looming West Wing brain drain and ongoing Russia inquiries to the threat of a Democratic wave in the midterms
“The grim reality of 2018 has generated a sense of foreboding among White House aides, according to more than a dozen current and former officials and outside advisers. West Wing aides, who worked furiously to push through legislation and executive actions during Trump’s first year in office, expect limited prospects for getting things done in Washington this year heading into a contentious midterm election.”


30 December
Jonathan Freedland: The year of Trump has laid bare the US constitution’s serious flaws
I once wrote a hymn of praise to the achievements of the founding fathers. There’s still much to celebrate – but their inspirational vision needs an urgent update
(The Guardian) But it’s time for me to admit my doubts about its core idea – its admiration for the US constitution and system of government. For this first year of the Donald Trump presidency has exposed two flaws in the model that I cannot brush aside so easily.
The first is that Trump has vividly demonstrated that much of what keeps a democracy intact is not enshrined in the written letter of a constitution, but resides instead in customs and conventions – norms – that are essential to civic wellbeing.  … this year of Trump has also shown the extent to which the US has an unwritten constitution that – just like ours – relies on the self-restraint of the key political players, a self-restraint usually insisted upon by a free press. …
In 2017 we saw with new clarity that the strength of the US constitution depends entirely on the willingness of those charged with enforcing it to do their duty. And today’s Republicans refuse to fulfil that obligation. …
these weaknesses in the US model have prompted me to see others. The second amendment does not compel Americans to allow an unrestricted flow of guns into the hands of the violent and dangerous, but the fact that the argument hinges on interpretations of a text written more than two centuries ago is itself a problem

7 December
David Brooks: The G.O.P. Is Rotting
A lot of good, honorable Republicans used to believe there was a safe middle ground. You didn’t have to tie yourself hip to hip with Donald Trump, but you didn’t have to go all the way to the other extreme and commit political suicide like the dissident Jeff Flake, either. You could sort of float along in the middle, and keep your head down until this whole Trump thing passed.
Now it’s clear that middle ground doesn’t exist. That’s because Donald Trump never stops asking.
Today’s tax cuts have no bipartisan support. They have no intellectual grounding, no body of supporting evidence. They do not respond to the central crisis of our time. They have no vision of the common good, except that Republican donors should get more money and Democratic donors should have less.
The rot afflicting the G.O.P. is comprehensive — moral, intellectual, political and reputational. More and more former Republicans wake up every day and realize: “I’m homeless. I’m politically homeless.”

1 December
What would Tillerson’s departure mean for the “redesign?
(Brookings) The one area where Secretary Tillerson was given some leash was on his ambitious “redesign” of the State Department, a laudable objective that has been executed astonishingly poorly.
A new Secretary of State would more likely decide to shelve the redesign effort and focus his or her time on matters of foreign policy, as most Secretaries have done.  In practice, the redesign team would finish its work by drafting a document which outlines all the reforms they would’ve done and then placing that document on the shelf to gather dust alongside the 2010 and 2015 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Reviews.
If Tillerson is pushed out, it will be a bittersweet ending for the redesign effort. There is little to be excited about from what we know of the proposed redesign plans so far. The only thing that seems clear is that Secretary Tillerson and the White House are committed to shrinking the number of State employees through a slow and painful process of attrition. If Tillerson’s departure ends the ongoing trench warfare with the bureaucrats, then it’s probably a good thing. (The Atlantic) Affairs of State: President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are still denying that Tillerson is set to be removed from his position—but his flubbed attempt to reorganize the State Department demonstrates amply that he’s unfit to lead it, writes Eliot A. Cohen.
Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director and Tillerson’s expected successor, may be a more effective leader—yet his past statements about Muslims suggest that he’s unlikely to keep bigoted behavior from the president in check.
The Odds of a Government Shutdown Are Skyrocketing
After the last round of DACA-related humiliation at the hands of the Democrats, Trump is taking no chances.
(Vanity Fair) People close to Trump told the Post that the president has recently impressed upon them the importance of securing funding for the U.S.-Mexico border wall, as well as being “seen as tough on immigration” as “a way to win back supporters unhappy with his outreach to Democrats this fall.” The president has reportedly gone so far as to suggest that a government shutdown spurred by a refusal to negotiate with Democrats would be politically expedient.

29 November
Trump’s Fateful Mistake on Consumer Financial Protection
By Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the IMF, professor at MIT Sloan
By seizing control of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and placing an ideological extremist in charge, US President Donald Trump has brought to the fore the deepest flaws in his administration’s founding myth. The gutting that now awaits the agency will visibly harm many of the ordinary people Trump promised to defend.
(Project Syndicate) The founding myth of US President Donald Trump’s administration is that it will look out for ordinary Americans, and that cutting taxes on companies, deregulating finance, and rolling back environmental protections will achieve that. None of this makes any sense, and the administration’s claims that these measures will spur an economic boom – with annual growth accelerating from 2% to 3% – are pure fantasy. …
Mulvaney has already announced an immediate freeze on all CFPB rules. Over time, whatever the short-term outcome of any judicial appeals, we should expect key people to be forced out of the agency, procedures to break down, and consumers to receive less redress. The effect of institutional turmoil will be dramatically chilling.
The CFPB is currently one of the most responsive government bureaucracies, focused on a specific set of achievable tasks. This will now end, likely quite soon

28 November
Can Senate GOP get the votes for tax and funding bills?
(PBS Newshour) Republicans need at least some Democratic votes to pass a government funding bill by next week’s deadline, but a morning tweet by President Trump prompted the Senate and House minority leaders to refuse a White House meeting. Meanwhile, the GOP also needs votes on tax reform, with key members undecided. Lisa Desjardins takes a closer look at the day’s developments.

26 November
Congress stares down shutdown amid December deluge
Taxes, government funding and immigration are just some of the thorny issues on the jam-packed agenda.
(Politico) At the same time, they’re dealing with Democrats to avert a Christmastime government shutdown. And that battle is complicated even further by an emotional fight over the fate of hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants.
… there’s the matter of keeping the government open. As Republicans try to jam through their partisan tax bill, they’ll be in talks with Democrats on a sweeping year-end spending package to fund the government through September. That task always needs bipartisan buy-in, but the immigration dimension makes the challenge vastly more complicated than in past years.
A short-term funding patch delaying the current Dec. 8 deadline at least a couple of weeks is inevitable, since top Hill leaders haven’t even agreed on spending numbers for federal agencies. The appropriations committees would need at least three to four weeks to write funding legislation.
Because it involves a must-pass bill, the spending fight gives House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) maximum leverage to demand a top priority for Democrats by year’s end: codifying Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals into law.
While not explicitly threatening to withhold votes without a DACA measure, both Pelosi and Schumer have vowed to save the Obama-era immigration program legislatively before lawmakers leave Washington for the year. Moderate Republicans have also urged their leadership to find a fix.

25 November
Could the battle for the GOP’s soul leave Republicans unelectable?
(WaPost) “We are in trouble as a party if we continue to follow both Roy Moore and Donald Trump” — Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)
What Flake said publicly is what Republican leaders are stressing over privately. They fear Trump is taking the party in a direction that could make it unelectable.
What’s not up for debate is that, for better or for worse, the ground the GOP rests upon is shifting underneath Republicans’ feet, and the battle is on for which side will ultimately lay claim to it. …
The end of Flake’s own career is a microcosm of the Republican Party’s breakup: Republicans are in a battle for the soul of their party. And it’s not clear (yet) which side will ultimately claim it. But as Flake voiced this week, plenty of establishment Republicans are terrified that Trump could be winning.

24 November
Rival appointments set up showdown to lead agency
President Trump on Friday announced that he is appointing Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney as acting director of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB), setting up a potential fight over the agency’s future.  Earlier Friday, CFPB head Richard Cordray announced that he was stepping down at the end of the day and elevated his chief of staff, Leandra English, to deputy director.

While eyes are on Russia, Sessions dramatically reshapes the Justice Department
(WaPo) From his crackdown on illegal immigration to his reversal of Obama administration policies on criminal justice and policing, Sessions is methodically reshaping the Justice Department to reflect his nationalist ideology and hard-line views – moves drawing comparatively less public scrutiny than the ongoing investigations into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin. Sessions has implemented a new charging and sentencing policy that calls for prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges possible, even if that might mean minority defendants face stiff, mandatory minimum penalties. He has defended the president’s travel ban and tried to strip funding from cities with policies he considers too friendly toward undocumented immigrants. Sessions has even adjusted the department’s legal stances in cases involving voting rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in a way that advocates warn might disenfranchise poor minorities and give certain religious people a license to discriminate. …

10 November
Timothy Egan:The Vacuity of the Vice President
(NYT) The big problem with Pence is the vast empty space between his ears and the articulation of thoughts formed in that space. … And because his mind is closed to rational thought outside his theocratic construct, everything he says comes out like platitudinous mush.
Pence calls himself a Christian first, a conservative second and a Republican third. Since taking the oath of office, he’s supposed to be a citizen first. But Pence is a theocrat — one who hasn’t had a new thought in years — and that’s why he sounds so vacuous.
As governor of Indiana, he signed a measure that legalized discrimination against gays and made his state a pariah. It was only under pressure from the business community that he was forced to retreat. Still, his long record of anti-gay actions prompted even Trump to joke that Pence wants to “hang them all.” The White House denied the quote.
As Jane Mayer documented in her portrait of Pence in The New Yorker, he is also the ultimate corporate tool. The Koch brothers own him. He has called climate change “a myth” and has helped to plant fossil-fuel toadies in crucial Trump administration posts.

2 November

Inside Trump’s Cruel Campaign Against the U.S.D.A.’s Scientists
(Vanity Fair) The folks at the Department of Agriculture laid on a friendly welcome for the Trump transition team, but they soon discovered that most of his appointees were stunningly unqualified. With key U.S.D.A. programs—from food stamps to meat inspection, to grants and loans for rural development, to school lunches—under siege, the agency’s greatest problem is that even the people it helps most don’t know what it does.
“… Its very name is seriously misleading—most of what it does has little to do with agriculture. It runs 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands, for instance. It is charged with inspecting almost all the animals people eat, including the nine billion birds a year. Buried inside it is a massive science program; a bank with $220 billion in assets; plus a large fleet of aircraft for firefighting. It monitors catfish farms. It maintains a shooting range inside its D.C. headquarters. It keeps an apiary on its roof, to study bee-colony collapse.
A small fraction of its massive annual budget ($164 billion in 2016) was actually spent on farmers, but it financed and managed all these programs in rural America—including the free school lunch for kids living near the poverty line. “I’m sitting there looking at this,” said Ali. “The U.S.D.A. had subsidized the apartment my family had lived in. The hospital we used. The fire department. The town’s water. The electricity. It had paid for the food I had eaten.

24 October
Flake’s speech burning Trump gets standing ovation from some Republicans
(CNN) Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a frequent critic of President Donald Trump, will not run for re-election, he said Tuesday in a blistering speech on the Senate floor that bemoaned the “coarsening” tenor of politics in the United States.
Flake denounced the “complicity” of his own party in what he called an “alarming and dangerous state of affairs” under Trump, blaming the President for setting the tone. In his speech, Flake assailed a “flagrant disregard for truth or decency” and attacked a “regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms.”

23 October
The Danger of President Pence
Trump’s critics yearn for his exit. But Mike Pence, the corporate right’s inside man, poses his own risks.
By Jane Mayer
(The New Yorker, 23 October edition) Pence’s odds of becoming President are long but not prohibitive. Of his forty-seven predecessors, nine eventually assumed the Presidency, because of a death or a resignation. … If the job is a gamble for Pence, he himself is something of a gamble for the country. During the tumultuous 2016 Presidential campaign, relatively little attention was paid to how Pence was chosen, or to his political record.
… Pence is a doctrinaire ideologue. Kellyanne Conway, the White House counsellor, who became a pollster for Pence in 2009, describes him as “a full-spectrum conservative” on social, moral, economic, and defense issues. Pence leans so far to the right that he has occasionally echoed A.C.L.U. arguments against government overreach; he has, for instance, supported a federal shield law that would protect journalists from having to identify whistle-blowers. According to Bannon, Pence is “the outreach guy, the connective tissue” between the Trump Administration and the most conservative wing of the Republican establishment.
… After Barack Obama was elected President, Pence became an early voice of the Tea Party movement, which opposed taxes and government spending with an angry edge. … Pence became best known for fiercely opposing abortion. He backed “personhood” legislation that would ban it under all circumstances, including rape and incest, unless a woman’s life was at stake. He sponsored an unsuccessful amendment to the Affordable Care Act that would have made it legal for government-funded hospitals to turn away a dying woman who needed an abortion. (Later, as governor of Indiana, he signed a bill barring women from aborting a physically abnormal fetus; the bill also required fetal burial or cremation, including after a miscarriage. A federal judge recently found the law unconstitutional.)

13 October
20 of America’s top political scientists gathered to discuss our democracy. They’re scared.
“If current trends continue for another 20 or 30 years, democracy will be toast.”
Democracies don’t merely collapse, as that “implies a process devoid of will.” Democracies die because of deliberate decisions made by human beings.
Usually, it’s because the people in power take democratic institutions for granted. They become disconnected from the citizenry. They develop interests separate and apart from the voters. They push policies that benefit themselves and harm the broader population. Do that long enough, Bermeo says, and you’ll cultivate an angry, divided society that pulls apart at the seams.

(Vox) The scholars pointed to breakdowns in social cohesion (meaning citizens are more fragmented than ever), the rise of tribalism, the erosion of democratic norms such as a commitment to rule of law, and a loss of faith in the electoral and economic systems as clear signs of democratic erosion.
No one believed the end is nigh, or that it’s too late to solve America’s many problems. Scholars said that America’s institutions are where democracy has proven most resilient. So far at least, our system of checks and balances is working — the courts are checking the executive branch, the press remains free and vibrant, and Congress is (mostly) fulfilling its role as an equal branch.

12 October
Here Are the Names of the 69 House Republicans Who Voted Against Aid for Puerto Rico
Despite the words of Trump and the votes of these 69 Republicans, over $36 Billion was allocated to additional disaster relief for Puerto Rico and other areas still recovering from natural disasters.

29 September
The Resignation of Tom Price
(The Atlantic) Price’s departure caps a stormy and unusually short tenure. A physician from Georgia who previously served in Congress [NB “More than $50 million was spent on a special House election in Georgia, making it the most expensive House election in history, to replace a lawmaker who didn’t last a year in the Trump Cabinet.”], Price was subject to withering attacks during his confirmation hearings from Democrats, who said that his trading of health-care stocks that were affected by his work in Congress was dubious at best and insider trading at worst.
For a group of secretaries who espouse conservative principles and complain that government is too large and spends too much, Trump’s Cabinet has proven remarkably effective at spending taxpayer money.  The failure of Obamacare repeal may have weakened Price heading into this scandal, but pushing him out may set a dangerous precedent for other members of the Cabinet.
Trump accepts Tom Price’s resignation
(The Hill) It marks the first time a cabinet official has resigned under Trump. Price, a former Georgia congressman, was supposed to bridge the gap between Congress and the administration.
Don Wright, HHS’s acting assistant secretary for health, will serve as acting secretary effective Saturday.
Repealing President Obama’s signature health care law was a top priority for Trump and he joked this summer that Price would be fired if it didn’t happen.
The resignation sets up a huge confirmation fight in the Senate for Price’s replacement.

Trump scrambles to contain Puerto Rico crisis
The Trump administration scrambled Friday to show it is on top of the crisis in Puerto Rico as it faced criticism from lawmakers in both parties that its response so far has been lacking.

28 September
Trump Waives Jones Act to Speed Up Aid Shipments to Puerto Rico
The waiver, which came at the request of Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello, is effective immediately and lasts for 10 days. It covers all products being shipped to Puerto Rico.
The 1920 Jones Act is a maritime law requiring shipments of goods between two U.S. ports to be made with American-flagged vessels and manned by American crews. Pressure was mounting on the Trump administration to lift the restrictions regarding supplies being sent to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria, which hit the U.S. territory more than a week ago.

27 September
(NYT Evening Briefing) “Every Republican senator had better get prepared for a challenge from the far right.”
That was Trent Lott, a former Senate Republican leader, after the defeat of Luther Strange in an Alabama primary last night.
Mr. Strange’s disappointed backers included President Trump (who deleted his supportive tweets when the results came in) and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.
The winner, Roy Moore, above, is an ultraconservative judge who once defied a federal court order to remove a 2.6-ton Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama Supreme Court building. He was backed by Stephen Bannon.

10 September
Breitbart’s Bannon declares war on the GOP
Steve Bannon, Trump’s ex-chief strategist, tells 60 Minutes why he’s out at the White House and criticizes the GOP for not supporting the president. “They’re gonna be held accountable,” he says

8 September
Joseph E. Stiglitz: Learning from Harvey
(Project Syndicate) Effective government investments and strong regulations are needed to ensure each of these outcomes, regardless of the prevailing political culture in Texas and elsewhere. Without adequate regulations, individuals and firms have no incentive to take adequate precautions, because they know that much of the cost of extreme events will be borne by others. Without adequate public planning and regulation, including of the environment, flooding will be worse. Without disaster planning and adequate funding, any city can be caught in the dilemma in which Houston found itself: if it does not order an evacuation, many will die; but if it does order an evacuation, people will die in the ensuing chaos, and snarled traffic will prevent people from getting out.

Trump Has No One in Charge of FEMA or the NOAA, Just in Time for Hurricane Season
(Esquire)  Hurricane season kicked off. Yes, that annual period when the American Southeast is most likely to get pelted with the fiercest storms the Atlantic has to offer. And because Everything Is Fine, we’re starting off the season without agency heads for FEMA or NOAA. There’s no reason for worry, though. The latter—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—oversees the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service, which provide hurricane forecasts and warnings ahead of a storm. There can’t be hurricanes if we can’t see them coming. And even if one does slip through, the Federal Emergency Management Agency won’t have anyone demanding that we “respond” or “help with relief efforts.” It’ll be like it never happened. (2 June 2017).
Update: FEMA now has a very competent administrator, William “Brock” Long, but there is no Secretary of Homeland Security since John Kelly left to become White House chief of staff. Fortunately, the acting Secetary, Elaine Duke is widely respected for her competence. (2 August)

1 September
After Harvey, the Trump administration reconsiders flood rules it just rolled back
(WaPost) In revoking the flood standard last month, Trump shelved two significant rules that were waiting to be finalized. One, at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, would have required that construction projects funded through its assistance programs be built between two and three feet above the 100-year flood elevation in an expanded flood plain, depending on whether they represented critical infrastructure. The second, at Housing and Urban Development, would have mandated new or substantially improved HUD-financed projects, such as multifamily housing complexes, be built two feet higher in an expanded flood plain area.

Trump pulls back threat to shut down government over border wall — for now
(WaPost) The White House has signaled to congressional Republicans that it will not shut down the government in October if money isn’t appropriated to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, potentially clearing a path for lawmakers to reach a short-term budget deal.
White House officials have signaled to lawmakers, however, that the wall’s eventual construction remains a top priority for Trump. He wants this funding to be included in the December budget bill, GOP congressional aides said.
31 August
The perils of deregulation.
The Chemical Plant Explosion in Texas Is Not an Accident. It’s the Result of Specific Choices.
(Esquire) So, conservative ideas have triumphed in Texas. A business-friendly environment has been created, based on free-market principles, deregulation, and a return to 10th amendment freedoms just as the Founders designed them, because the best government is the one that is closest to the people
… there apparently is a law in Texas that specifically forbids many cities and towns from designing their own fire codes. Hell, the state even passed a law forbidding cities and towns from requiring fire sprinklers in new construction. Freedom!
Two years ago, [Matt Dempsey of the Houston Chronicle] and his team put together a staggering eight-part series about the lack of rudimentary safety precautions that exists in what has become the petrochemical capital of the country. The series took a chunk out of both the recklessness of the Texas state government and out of the spavined state of the EPA and OSHA even under President Obama, the latter problems having gotten worse under the current administration. You should read the whole thing, but Part Six of the series is particularly relevant. It describes how the city government of Houston, and its responsible officials, are flying completely blind as to what is being manufactured and stored in the hundreds of plants in and around the city. Read this from the Chronicle.

26 August
Top Republicans criticized Trump’s Joe Arpaio pardon. Over the weekend, House Speaker Paul Ryan, senator John McCain (paywall), and others objected to the president’s pardon of the former Arizona sheriff, on the grounds that it undermined the rule of law. McCain noted that Arpaio had shown no remorse for his actions—which include racial profiling and brutal treatment of inmates.

19 August
Collaboration: Be Careful Who You Work With
At a time when precise language has gone missing from the White House, how best to describe those Republicans still loyal to President Trump?
By Lynn Sherr
(Bill Moyers & Co.) Our devilish bargain arose from a democratically conducted election, and the delusional notion, held by a minority, that a blowhard narcissist ignorant of both history and truth might be the great white hope for fame, fortune and a big fat tax cut. With heartbreaking exceptions, like the murder of Heather Heyer, our war confronts civil life, not life and death.

18 August
Symbols in the South: A turning point for Confederate monuments
The debate over the removal of Civil War monuments came to a boiling point in Charlottesville, but the statues have less to do with celebrating the Confederacy and more to do with the political climate in which they were erected, Eric Andrew-Gee writes
(Globe & Mail) Robert E. Lee disapproved of Civil War monuments.
“I think it wiser,” the top Confederate general wrote, just a few years after the end of the conflict, “to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife …”
Nearly a century and a half later, the United States has been visited by civil strife again – this time over a monument to Lee in Charlottesville, Va.
This week, not just Klansmen and neo-Nazis but the U.S. President and a plurality of Americans opposed a local decision to remove the statue.
Some made the case that even ugly parts of the past should be remembered, but a far-right rally around the statue was the scene of racist chants and led to the death of a counterprotester last weekend.

17 August
Trump mourns loss of ‘beautiful statues and monuments’ in wake of Charlottesville rally over Robert E. Lee statue
(WaPost) Trump’s string of morning tweets made clear the president was not willing to back down over his claims Tuesday that some of the demonstrators had legitimate grievances over the loss of Southern “history.” …
During his remarks Tuesday and again in his tweets Thursday, Trump argued that Lee and fellow Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, who commanded Southern forces in the Civil War to secede from the United States, are important and admired historical figures in the South. He said they could be equated to Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves and thus could potentially be subject to a modern-day backlash that would tarnish their legacies.
Lexington, Ky. approves plan to move Confederate monuments

14 August
Bannon in Limbo as Trump Faces Growing Calls for the Strategist’s Ouster
(NYT) For months, Mr. Trump has considered ousting Stephen K. Bannon, the White House chief strategist and relentless nationalist who ran the Breitbart website and called it a “platform for the alt-right.” Mr. Trump has sent Mr. Bannon to a kind of internal exile, and has not met face-to-face for more than a week with a man who was once a fixture in the Oval Office, according to aides and friends of the president. So far, Mr. Trump has not been able to follow through — a product of his dislike of confrontation, the bonds of a foxhole friendship forged during the 2016 presidential campaign and concerns about what mischief Mr. Bannon might do once he leaves the protective custody of the West Wing.
Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?
(The New Yorker) America’s stability is increasingly an undercurrent in political discourse. Earlier this year, I began a conversation with Keith Mines about America’s turmoil. Mines has spent his career—in the U.S. Army Special Forces, the United Nations, and now the State Department—navigating civil wars in other countries, including Afghanistan, Colombia, El Salvador, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan. He returned to Washington after sixteen years to find conditions that he had seen nurture conflict abroad now visible at home.
Based on his experience in civil wars on three continents, Mines cited five conditions that support his prediction: entrenched national polarization, with no obvious meeting place for resolution; increasingly divisive press coverage and information flows; weakened institutions, notably Congress and the judiciary; a sellout or abandonment of responsibility by political leadership; and the legitimization of violence as the “in” way to either conduct discourse or solve disputes.
Trump, Bowing to Pressure, Rebukes White Supremacists
New Outcry as Trump Rebukes Charlottesville Racists 2 Days Later
Even Mr. Trump’s allies worried that his measured remarks, delivered two days after dozens of public figures issued more forceful denunciations of the violence in Virginia, came too late to reverse the self-inflicted damage on his moral standing as president.
Frank Bruni of the NYT sums up the reaction in many media to Trump’s late condemnation of the white supremacists, KKK and others President Trump Cannot Redeem Himself

13 August
Trump aides predicting ‘brutal’ September
Aides hope to use meetings in New York this week to figure out their plans for the debt ceiling, 2018 budget, tax reform, infrastructure spending and perhaps another stab at repealing Obamacare.
(Politico) Their goal is to partially temper Trump’s expectations, hammer out some compromises and get a competing band of aides on the same page. The month has taken on outsize importance among some top aides and outside advisers, who view it as key to getting the presidency on a better track.

12 August
Car Hits Crowd After White Nationalist Rally in Charlottesville Ends in Violence
(NYT) The city of Charlottesville was engulfed by violence on Saturday as white nationalists and counterprotesters clashed in one of the bloodiest fights to date over the removal of Confederate monuments across the South.
White nationalists had long planned a demonstration over the city’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. But the rally quickly exploded into racial taunting, shoving and outright brawling, prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency and the National Guard to join the police in clearing the area.
After the rally was dispersed, its organizer, Jason Kessler, who calls himself a “white advocate,” complained in an interview that his group had been “forced into a very chaotic situation.” He added, “The police were supposed to be there protecting us and they stood down.”
Both Mr. Kessler and Richard Spencer, a prominent white nationalist who was to speak on Saturday, are graduates of the University of Virginia. In an online video, titled “a message to Charlottesville,’’ Mr. Spencer vowed to return to the college town.
The violence in Charlottesville was the latest development in a series of tense dramas unfolding across the United States over plans to remove statues and other historical markers of the Confederacy. The battles have been intensified by the election of Mr. Trump, who enjoys fervent support from white nationalists.
Trump’s Remarks on Charlottesville Violence Are Criticized as Insufficient

11 August
The Madman and the Bomb
(Politico) At every step of the way, there’s a hard-and-fast “two-man” rule, to ensure that no one is ever in a situation of having to deciding to detonate a nuclear bomb alone. In the missile silos buried beneath the Great Plains, two missileers must simultaneously turn their keys to launch the missiles—and the keys must be turned in at least two different silos to launch the ICBMs from a missile field. Aboard the submarines, the commanding officer and the executive officer must both concur about a valid launch order, a scenario made famous by the Denzel Washington movie Crimson Tide. In fact, all of our nuclear systems are considered “No Lone Zones,” staffed by two qualified and certified personnel, to guard against accidental or malicious nuclear launches.All of them, except, of course, the president himself.

10 August
In a new poll, half of Republicans say they would support postponing the 2020 election if Trump proposed it
Roughly half of Republicans believe Trump won the popular vote — and would support postponing the 2020 election.

9 August
[The insufferable] Conrad Black: Choose Sides in This Civil War
Trump opponents need to understand what the alternative is.
(National Review) This is a civil war and the apostate conservatives should realize that, if Trump loses, they don’t get a new Reaganism in the Republican party and renewed importance and self-importance for themselves; they get the semi-permanent return of those responsible for the decline of America, the sleazy transformation of America into an ineffectual force in the world and into an inert, economically stagnant welfare state. The choice, for sane conservatives, is Trump or national disaster, and it’s time for my learned friends on the highbrow right to come back to (the troubled American part of) this planet — though I see no sign of its happening.

3 August

Newly sworn-in White House Chief of Staff John Kelly look on during a Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House in Washington, DC, on July 31, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

John Kelly Quickly Moves to Impose Military Discipline on White House
Mr. Trump has never been known to follow anybody’s direction, in Trump Tower or the White House. But Mr. Trump has never encountered anyone quite like Mr. Kelly, a combat veteran whose forceful management style and volatile temper are a match for the president’s.
(NYT) Mr. Kelly cuts off rambling advisers midsentence. He listens in on conversations between cabinet secretaries and the president. He has booted lingering staff members out of high-level meetings, and ordered the doors of the Oval Office closed to discourage strays. He fired Anthony Scaramucci and has demanded that even Mr. Trump’s family, including his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, check with him if they want face time with the president.
He has privately acknowledged that he cannot control the president and that his authority would be undermined if he tried and failed. Instead, he is intent on cosseting Mr. Trump with bureaucratic competence and forcing staff members to keep to their lanes, a challenge in an administration defined by tribal loyalties to power players like Mr. Kushner and Mr. Bannon.
The LA Times reminds us that “Kelly’s history as a Marine commander in the Iraq war is well known. But two other parts of his resume may be more relevant to his new job. He’s spent years as the Marine Corps liaison to Capitol Hill, including a stint as the top legislative assistant to the commandant of the Corps. He also served as senior military assistant to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who, as White House chief of staff two decades ago, brought order to the chaotic first term of President Clinton.”

31 July
Matthew Fisher’s profile is based on his experience of being embedded with General Kelly’s troops
Matthew Fisher: Who is John Kelly, and is he the man for Trump’s impossible mission?
Almost everyone with an opinion on Trump regarded Kelly’s appointment as the president’s right-hand man as a poisoned chalice
Leading ferociously disciplined marines, who famously do what they are told, is a lot different than trying to herd belled cats. We should all wish General Kelly godspeed on his latest journey.

28 July

Priebus forced out as White House chief of staff

(The Hill) President Trump has dismissed Reince Priebus as chief of staff, announcing Friday that he picked Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly as his new top aide.
Priebus is Trump’s embattled top aide who is embroiled in a feud with new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci.

(LATimes) The week the wheels fell off in Trump’s Washington

(The Atlantic) Obamacare Survives: The “no” votes of three Republican senators—John McCain, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski—brought down Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan for a “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act. The proposal failed by a margin of just one vote, and McCain’s was the biggest surprise: Critics had denounced him for putting partisanship first in a vote to proceed in debate on the legislation yet his final rejection of the measure suggests his loyalties are in fact to process and civility. Now, some Democrats say they’re ready to work on a bipartisan plan for health-care reform. And as Republicans try to move forward from a drawn-out failure, David Frum outlines 10 challenges they’ll face.

(WSJ) House Republicans built their tax plan around a new system for taxing companies, an assumption that hundreds of billions of dollars in tax increases in the 2010 Affordable Care Act would be gone already and confidence that the GOP could muscle important legislation through Congress on party-line votes. All three of those pillars collapsed in 12 hours overnight Thursday. The developments bring new urgency to Republicans’ efforts to revamp the U.S. tax system, now the party’s best chance to deliver a major legislative victory before the 2018 midterm election. There are reasons to think a tax overhaul could be easier than health care. But the effort faces tough realities. Richard Rubin reports.

27 July
Paul Waldman: Incredibly, the White House is spiraling even further into chaos
(WaPost) Most of Trump’s agenda is stalled, half the key jobs are vacant, senior officials can’t wait to get out of town, and everybody’s leaking to the press about what a mess it all is. This is one fine-tuned machine all right.
Let’s begin with the Trump administration’s new media superstar, communications director Anthony Scaramucci. Despite having no experience in politics or press relations, Scaramucci was hired because President Trump saw him on cable TV, and he is indeed a perfect creature of that medium: not well-informed, but absolutely confident in everything he says

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