Dem 48
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GOP 52
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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Score: Mooch 1, Reince 0
      •  Trump's Staffing Woes Can Only Get Worse
      •  Republican Blame Game Begins
      •  Takeaways from the Health-Care Fiasco
      •  LePage: Collins Is Running for Governor
      •  Can a Pardon Be Questioned?
      •  Congress Passes Bill to Sanction Russia; Trump Will Sign It
      •  Pentagon Is Not Enforcing Anti-Transgender Directive

Score: Mooch 1, Reince 0

After Anthony "Mooch" Scaramucci viciously attacked White House chief of staff Reince Priebus this week, it was clear the White House wasn't big enough for both of them. Donald Trump has now made a decision, and it is Priebus who has to go. The new chief of staff is Gen. John Kelly (ret.), up until now the secretary of homeland security. As chief of staff, he does not need to be confirmed by the Senate. The new secretary of DHS does need to be confirmed, of course.

Trump never liked or trusted Priebus, and is happy to be rid of him. To a large extent, he was foisted upon Trump by the Republican establishment, which wanted an "adult" in charge of the White House. Trump likes Kelly, in part due to the general's strong defense of Trump's Muslim travel bans. Also important is that first son-in-law Jared Kushner likes Kelly as well. Another plus for Kelly is that he gets along with Steve Bannon, a former Navy officer. However, Kelly comes with a built-in disadvantage from Bannon's point of view: Bannon always saw Priebus as a weakling he could push around, but Kelly is a retired four-star Marine Corps general. Those guys don't get pushed around easily.

Scaramucci successfully got rid of one person (Priebus) who was a problem for him. Now it looks like a twofer, as he is also parting ways with someone else who doesn't like him so much: his (second) wife. Deidre Ball was tired of Scaramucci's naked ambition and is no fan of Trump, so she has filed for divorce. They have been married for 3 years and have two children. Nothing like being hit with a divorce suit after you have been on a new very high-profile job for only a week.

There is one potential downside of Trump's firing Priebus. Priebus is now unemployed and certainly can't go back to the RNC (which he once ran), since that slot is being filled by Mitt Romney's niece, Ronna Romney McDaniel. So how does he earn some money to live on? One thought that might pop into his head is write a tell-all memoir about his time in the White House. After all, he knows where the skeletons are buried. In fact, he even knows where they are still walking around. And reportedly, he's one of the few White House insiders who did not sign a non-disclosure agreement. Could he get a six- or seven-figure advance on such a book? Stay tuned. (V)

Trump's Staffing Woes Can Only Get Worse

Here is how the New York Post portrayed the Trump administration on its front page yesterday:

NY Post Survivor

There is much truth here—the members of the Trump administration have to constantly watch their backs for fear of getting stabbed, and today's ally could be tomorrow's enemy (if they're not tossed off the island first). Very few people not named Gordon Gekko find this kind of work environment appealing, and would willingly choose to subject themselves to such pressure for multiple years.

And then, of course, there is the President, and his constantly-shifting moods and loyalties. Let's consider the few categories of people he seems to be unwilling to throw under the bus:

  • Family: Trump is famously loyal to family members above all others, though Jared Kushner could put that to the test.

  • Longtime Friends: In a related matter, Trump is generally quite loyal to people whom he has known for decades. Anthony Scaramucci, for example. That said, friends of The Donald are not guaranteed to remain in his good graces. Roy Cohn got jettisoned once he was diagnosed with AIDS.

  • High-Ranking Military Officers: Trump spent his formative years in military school, and seems to have internalized what he learned there, because he's clearly both impressed and intimidated by military brass. Trump has criticized many people, both friend and foe, but there's been nary a word about James Mattis, John Kelly, or Herbert McMaster, or even the now-disgraced Mike Flynn.

  • The Ultra-Rich: Trump learned from his father and grandmother that the one indicator of success in the world is money—lots of it. He's done everything he could in his life to acquire as much wealth as is possible, and then has done everything he could to flaunt it and to convince us all that he has more of it than he really has. So, of course he holds other ultra-wealthy moguls like Treasury Sec Steve Mnuchin, in high regard. Note that Sec. of State Rex Tillerson did not build his wealth by starting a company; he earned it as a (highly) salaried employee. So while he's wealthy, it's not the type of wealth that Trump truly respects. To the President, he's more like "the help" than "my peer."

Let's see, that's family and friends of the president, military elites, and the ultra-rich. That sounds very much like the government of a banana republic. Or North Korea. In any event, these are all fairly limited commodities. Trump's already got most of his family and friends working in the administration, and there are only so many military officers and/or ultra-rich people in the country. So these "hiring pools" are close to being tapped out.

Meanwhile, let's look at the groups for whom Trump has little regard:

  • GOP Politicians: Again keeping in mind Trump's background, politicians for him have always been someone to be bought or someone to be fought. His utter disdain for them, expressed early and often, was key to his presidential victory. And his approach is no different today from what it was in his days as a real estate tycoon: Use, then discard. Jeff Sessions, Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani—the list is long, and the pattern is clear.

  • The GOP Establishment: With the cashiering of Reince Priebus, the only longtime member of the GOP establishment that is still in Trump's inner circle, at least among those who have not held office, is Kellyanne Conway. She's distinguished herself, however, with her willingness to peddle the administration's message, even if it meant lying through her teeth. Sean Spicer was willing, too, but he's not quite as effective at it. And, even then, Conway has been on thin ice more than once.

  • Critics: It hardly even needs to be said that the biggest non-starter in TrumpWorld is past criticism of The Donald, though Scaramucci got a pass.

  • Everyone Else: There are a few key members of the Trump administration who don't fit into any of the categories outlined so far, most obviously the outsider rabble-rousers like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller. There is simply no reason to believe that Trump's relationships with such individuals are anything but marriages of convenience, like his relationships with politicians. Bannon, for example, keeps some parts of the base happy, sometimes gives advice that The Donald finds useful, and also keeps megadonor Rebekah Mercer happy. However, given the number of times that Bannon has been publicly rebuked (i.e. being removed from the NSA), or has been rumored to be on thin ice, he could easily (and probably will) find himself the scapegoat du jour. If his head rolls, Miller's will soon follow.

The most interesting case study is Mike Pence. There's no real evidence that Pence enjoys Trump's confidence or his loyalty, given that Pence hasn't been terribly helpful getting things through Congress, that he isn't wealthy, and that Trump and Pence don't see eye-to-eye on much of anything (like, say, religion). Further, it's only a matter of time until the President realizes that his VP is laying the groundwork for his own presidential run, perhaps as soon as 2020. On the other hand, Pence is the one guy who can't be fired or compelled to resign (probably), so Trump has to be circumspect. This means that they will probably spend the next few years largely ignoring one another.

In any event, Trump is now lagging far, far behind his predecessors when it comes to staffing his administration. By this time, George H. W. Bush had filled three times as many jobs (162) as Trump has (51), while George W. Bush (208), Bill Clinton (214), and Barack Obama (228) had filled four times as many. All of the drama, and all of Trump's well-established patterns, are going to make it very hard to catch up anytime soon. Anyone who is not a family member, friend, general, or wealthy tycoon would, to be blunt, be crazy to put themselves in the hands of a man demands loyalty but rarely gives it. For the same reasons, it's also likely that the exodus does not stop with Spicer and Priebus. (Z)

Republican Blame Game Begins

Whose fault is it that more than 6 months into President Donald Trump's term, the 7-year dream of the Republican Party to end the ACA has ended in failure? Jack Kennedy said that victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan. With respect to the late great health care bill, defeat has a thousand fathers—strike that, make it nine, two of whom are actually mothers. The finger pointing is only beginning. Here are some of the early front runners:

  • Sen. John McCain (R-AZ): The "no" vote from McCain was certainly a big surprise. Had he voted "yes," the bill would have passed. To make it worse, he could have issued a kind of legislative "pocket veto" by simply staying in Arizona, claiming he was too ill to travel. No one would have contradicted him. Instead, he made a point of flying to D.C. to cast the final and decisive vote, possibly his last vote ever. For Republicans who don't like McCain—and there are many—he is an obvious traitor to the Party.

  • Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK): Their votes were just as important as McCain's, but not as dramatic, in part because they have been critics of the plan all along. Still, in the end, it is one senator, one vote.

  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY): At least part of the reason McCain voted no was the process. McConnell put together a team of 13 men (no women), then ignored them and wrote the bill secretly himself. If he had used the regular order, with committee meetings, witnesses, markup, and the usual Senate process, he might have gotten McCain's vote. Also, probably a large part of the reason the two women voted "no" was that although the bill did very little, it did include defunding Planned Parenthood. While this is a pet project of many anti-abortion conservatives, the ACA is not really an abortion bill. If McConnell had left out the defunding of Planned Parenthood, he might have gotten Murkowski's vote.

  • Donald Trump: When the president's party controls both chambers of Congress, the president is expected to take an active role in shaping legislation and getting it passed. Trump had no idea what was in any of the bills and played almost no role at all, unless you count tweets. If he had been actively involved in the process and made it clear exactly what he wanted in the bill, he might have gotten it through. Instead the whole process dragged out for months due to the absence of his leadership.

  • Reince Priebus: Priebus was the administration's point man on Capitol Hill, and twisted arms aggressively in an effort to get his (former) boss a victory. He might have spent more time back at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. explaining to the President how the system works, and how important it is for the POTUS to be hands-on. Priebus has been a dead man walking for months, but the general consensus is that Thursday night's failure was the final nail in the coffin.

  • Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke: Zinke used to be in Congress. He knows how things work. Calling up Lisa Murkowski and threatening her the day before the vote was extremely unwise. She was absolutely livid at the attempted blackmail. Her vote might not have been gettable under any conditions, but making her furious just before the vote was not a swift move. He could have offered her a truckload of carrots ("We will put 1000 new oil rigs in Alaska and build 20 new pipelines to carry out all the oil and get Canada to pay for it"). He did it all wrong.

  • Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI): Ryan put together a House bill that he knew damn well could never pass the Senate. In fact, McConnell never even brought it up for a vote. All this to please Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows. If Ryan had run an open process, with committee meetings and input from the moderate Tuesday Caucus, with an emphasis on creating a bill that could pass the Senate, it might have worked. He could have gone to his caucus and asked a very straightforward question: "Do you want to rid the country of this dreaded Obamacare menace or do you want to make a symbolic gesture and keep Obamacare forever?" He didn't.

  • Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC): Had Meadows focused on getting a bill that could actually become law rather than the most extreme bill that could pass the House, the Senate might just have approved it 51 or 52 to 48 and sent it to the President. But he apparently forgot that the gun had real bullets in it this time, and that passing bills when your party controls the White House is different than when it doesn't. A senior moment? Early Alzheimers' at 58? Who knows. But he could have helped craft a bill that could pass the Senate and didn't.

As is so often the case, with any complex real-world event (e.g., Hillary Clinton's loss in 2016), there are many causes, the absence of any one of which could have moved the needle the other way. But we'll never know.

Well, we'll probably never know. There is a small chance that the Republicans will get a do-over. Suppose McCain dies within a year and Gov. Doug Ducey (R-AZ) appoints a conventional Republican to fill his seat. McConnell could bring the "skinny repeal" bill back up again and maybe get it through on the second try. Of course, then a House-Senate conference committee would have to come up with something that could pass both chambers. (V)

Takeaways from the Health-Care Fiasco

The Republicans' failure to repeal and replace Obamacare is going to have a lot of repercussions down the road. The Hill has compiled a list of five major things to take away from the debacle:

  • The Republican leadership in Congress wants to drop health care and move onto tax reform.
  • The secretive process by which the health-care bills were written will haunt Mitch McConnell.
  • Democrats scored a big victory by staying united, with blue-state and red-state Democrats together all the way.
  • Republican divisions in the senate run deep.
  • Trump's threats backfired.

It takes a while for things to crystallize, but it already seems clear that this was a big win for the Democrats and big loss for the Republicans. It will be a big morale booster for the blue team and a painful loss for the red team. (V)

LePage: Collins Is Running for Governor

Gov. Paul LePage (R-ME) has said that Sen. Susan Collins is running to replace him in 2018 (he's term limited). That could explain her opposition to all the Republican health-care bills this year. Maine is a fairly blue state and if she runs for a new office, she won't have the advantage of incumbency that she has in her Senate races. To win the governor's mansion she will need a fair number of Democratic votes. So how does a Republican gets Democratic votes in a blue state? How about opposing the Republicans' health-care bills?

Collins isn't up in 2018, so she can run for governor without giving up her Senate seat. If she wins, she becomes governor. If she loses, she can stay a senator. Of course if she wins, she will have to resign her Senate seat, something she is likely to do a few minutes after being sworn in as governor. Who would appoint the new senator? Governor Collins, of course. Since she is a Republican, she is very likely to appoint another Republican to her seat. The obvious candidate is Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-ME), although he is more conservative than she is. If she wants someone who is less conservative than Poliquin, she could pick a state senator or representative, of course. (V)

Can a Pardon Be Questioned?

Donald Trump has pointed out that he has absolute authority in the matter of pardoning people, at least for federal crimes (but not state crimes). But when someone is pardoned, the story doesn't always stop there. In particular, when Bill Clinton pardoned fugitive oil trader Marc Rich on the his last day in office, alarms went off all over the place, including in the office of U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, a Clinton appointee. She acted on a hunch that Rich had bribed Clinton directly or indirectly and launched an investigation of the matter. Certainly, Rich's wife gave generously (seven figures) to the Democratic Party and to the Clintons' various political campaigns. Five years later, the Justice Dept. gave up for lack of hard evidence. There might have been a corrupt bargain, but absent evidence that could be used in court, there was no case.

Congress got into the act as well, with some of the members egging the Justice Dept. on. One of them said: "If a person takes a thing of value for themself [sic] or for another person that influences their decision in a matter of their official capacity, then that could be a criminal offense." Of course, any other criminal motive (such as obstruction of justice) would also qualify, not just a direct bribe. Who said that? A senator named Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. It might be interesting to get him on the record now as to whether a pardon could be a criminal act. (V)

Congress Passes Bill to Sanction Russia; Trump Will Sign It

By huge margins, both chambers of Congress have now passed a bill to increase sanctions on Russia and sent it to Donald Trump. The President, recognizing that a veto would be overridden, thus dealing him another embarrassing defeat, has decided to sign it. In a statement, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said:

President Donald J. Trump read early drafts of the bill and negotiated regarding critical elements of it. He has now reviewed the final version and, based on its responsiveness to his negotiations, approves the bill and intends to sign it."

This is an obvious attempt to save face, since—besides the acknowledgment that he's going to sign the bill—there's likely nothing here that's actually true. Trump doesn't get involved in negotiating things with Congress, nor does he read early drafts or review final drafts of legislation. And he certainly doesn't "approve" of measures that take power away from him. Further, if he was involved in the process, why haven't we heard a word about it until now? The White House's only comments on the matter before Friday had been to denigrate the measure.

These developments are very displeasing to Vladimir Putin, who certainly thought he had helped put a useful stooge in the White House. Even before Trump signaled that he would sign the bill, the Russians fired a shot across the bow, seizing a warehouse and a public park used by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and ordering the U.S. to reduce the number of diplomatic personnel in the country to 455—the exact number Russia has in the U.S.—by September 1. The U.S. mission to Russia currently numbers over 1,200 people, so this would reduce staffing by over 60%

There isn't much more that the Russians can do to strike back within the borders of their own country, but depending on how aggravated Putin is, he could start looking for opportunities to challenge the U.S. elsewhere. Eastern Ukraine, for example, or Syria, or even the South China Sea. If Vlad really wants to play dirty, some of the kompromat that he has stockpiled on Trump might just leak out. All of this is a major headache for the President, and explains why he badly wanted to avoid a sanctions bill, and also why it's highly improbable he would have participated in shaping such a bill.

All of this comes, of course, as the Russiagate business grows grimmer by the day for the President. Special counsel Mueller is still at work looking at Russia's meddling in the election, Donald Trump Jr. will soon be testifying before Congress, Jared Kushner is trying hard not to go to prison as his father did, and the New York Times and Washington Post seem to come up with new dirt every week. None of these developments can be seen as big wins for Trump. Who knew that America's enemies might not have the United States' best interests at heart? (V & Z)

Pentagon Is Not Enforcing Anti-Transgender Directive

U.S. military leadership is, by all accounts, not too happy about Donald Trump's surprise ban on transgender soldiers. They don't like the idea of losing as many as 15,000 active duty personnel. Nor that a segment of the U.S. population will be unavailable for recruitment. Not to mention that transgender status cannot be medically proven or disproven (unless the definition were based on hardware rather than software), and so a ban would give any soldier who wanted out of their commitment early an easy way to achieve their goal.

It is no surprise, then, that no steps have been taken to act on the President's instructions. There are, in fact, some serious questions that need to be answered by Trump before they can even consider doing so. To start, does he actually intend to drum thousands of soldiers—who represent hundreds of millions of dollars spent on recruitment and training—out of the military? And, if so, what will the status of their discharge be? If they are dishonorably discharged, it would be exceedingly unfair, and would deprive them access to military healthcare and other veterans' benefits. This could trigger many lawsuits. On the other hand, Trump presumably does not intend that they should be honorably discharged. And even if he does, or if he wants to issue general discharges, there needs to be a basis for the discharge. Back in the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" era, gay soldiers' discharges were on the basis of "homosexual admission" or "homosexual conduct." But those records become available to employers, which means that if the Pentagon went a similar route this time, they would be outing transgender people without their consent. More potential lawsuits.

The lesson here for the President is that the federal bureaucracy has more power than he realizes. In particular, they are masters of foot-dragging when they want to be. Given the issues that the transgender ban raises, along with the Pentagon's obvious lack of enthusiasm, and the fact that the President got most of what he wanted—attention, pleasing the base, a distraction—simply by making the announcement, it would not be a huge surprise if this whole thing quietly fades away. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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