Sep. 17

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Trump's Decisions Not Exactly Etched in Stone

It's been just more than a month since President Donald Trump announced that transgender soldiers would be banned from the military, effective immediately. Since then, the decision has been softened, and softened, and then softened again. The Department of Defense is now conducting a "study" of the matter, and it's been made clear that few active-duty transgender soldiers, if any, will be tossed out of the service. In fact, it was announced Saturday that they will be allowed to re-enlist while the study is underway. In short, the President's pronouncement looks more and more like it was for symbolic purposes, and was not actually a substantive change in policy.

Then, of course, there is DACA. Two weeks ago, Trump announced he was ending the program. Then, this week, he took steps to save it. And while such maneuvering could be undertaken with an eye toward granting concessions from the Democrats, that's not what he did. He got almost nothing from them, other than token funding for additional border security.

Now, evidence is mounting that the decision to pull out of the Paris Accord may be in the "this decision is not final" category. On Friday, the European Union's Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy, Miguel Arias Cañete, told the Wall Street Journal that the Trump administration, "will not renegotiate the Paris accord, but they will try to review the terms on which they could be engaged under this agreement." The White House pushed back, and said that is not true. However, it is unlikely Arias Cañete made it all up. Further, the fine line that his words describe is exactly the kind of thing we've seen from the Trump administration. Essentially, "Ok, we're staying in the agreement, but we're doing it on OUR terms." Which is, of course, just spin, since either the U.S. abides by the terms or it doesn't.

It's not terribly surprising that this is what Trumpian leadership looks like. He is very impulsive, which results in hasty, poorly-thought-out decisions. And he cares a lot about being popular, which results in dramatic changes of course when there is a backlash. We should presumably expect a lot more of these 180-degree flip-flops while he remains in the Oval Office. (Z)

Trump Won't Get Most of His Budget Cuts

When the president submits his budget to Congress, it's something of a rough draft. Sometimes Congress makes a few changes, and passes it. Sometimes they change a lot. Inasmuch as Congress and the White House are presently in the hands of the same political party, one might have expected Donald Trump's budget—which tried to deliver on the promises he made on the campaign trail—to be in the "few changes" category. However, the House has already set aside, or else dramatically curtailed, most of the budget cuts Trump called for.

For example, Trump wanted to cut FEMA funding by $876 million. Instead, the House wants to give them $39 million more—Congressional lawmakers presumably recognize that the optics of cutting FEMA funding just weeks after two major hurricanes would not be good. Trump wanted the $2.9 billion for The Community Development Block Grant, which funds Meals on Wheels (among other programs), eliminated. The House wants to slash $100 million, or about 3%. The National Endowment for the Arts will also take a 3% cut, if the House gets it way, as opposed to the 100% cut Trump called for. The President wanted to cut the National Institute of Health's finding by $7.5 billion; the House would actually increase funding by $1.1 billion.

The House's numbers are just another rough draft; the Senate gets its say as well. And given that the Senate is more moderate than the House is, it is likely that the cuts will be trimmed back yet again. The House budget would slash a total of $5 billion in spending; it would not be unusual for that number to drop to $2-$3 billion once all is said and done. That's enough for the GOP to claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility, but not quite enough to enrage any of the stakeholders that depend on federal funds.

Meanwhile, what happened in the White House that caused them to submit a budget that is going to be hacked to pieces? Trump may know little of the legislative process, but his budget director, former representative Mick "The Knife" Mulvaney does. One possibility is that Mulvaney, who was part of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus when he was in Congress, got a little drunk with power and overshot his target. A second is that the administration wants to say that it tried its best to rein in government spending, but that those swamp-lovers in Congress wouldn't play along. A third is that by shooting for major funding cuts, it makes minor funding cuts more politically palatable. In other words, "They cut $100 million from Meals on Wheels!" sounds worse than, "In the end, only $100 million was shaved off of the Meals on Wheels budget." We probably won't get a real sense of what the administration's game is until we see next year's budget. (Z)

Pence Loses His Press Secretary

Much has been written about all the turnover at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Less attention has been paid to One Naval Observatory Circle, but there's been a fair bit of turnover there, too, particularly given that Vice President has considerably fewer staffers working for him. Mike Pence's chief of staff, Josh Pitcock, jumped ship at the end of June, and now his press secretary, Marc Lotter, will be leaving as well.

Since the Veep doesn't get quite the attention his boss does, it's not entirely clear what's going on here. Some have suggested he's hard to work for, and has the same difficulty that Donald Trump does when it comes to trusting people he hasn't known for 20 years. Another possibility is that he shifting from the kind of staff that are apropos for a VP to the kind of staff that are apropos for a 2020 presidential run. There are also whispers that Pence is soon going to be deeply ensnared in Russiagate, and that his associates are jumping ship before they get caught up in it, too. Whatever the case may be, the situation bears watching. (Z)

It's Definitely Trump vs. Bannon in Alabama

In nine days, Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) will face off against ex-judge Roy Moore (R) for the right to represent the GOP in the Dec. 12 election to choose a replacement senator for Jeff Sessions, who vacated his seat to become attorney general. All eyes will be on the election, as it pits the power players of the GOP in pitched battle against one another.

The ultra-conservative, firebomb-throwing Moore is the candidate of, well, the ultra-conservative and firebomb-throwing members of the Republican Party, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), and, perhaps most importantly, Steve Bannon. Strange has the backing of the GOP establishment, including Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), Sessions, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Strange also has the support of Donald Trump, who looked like he might sit this one out as the Alabama senator slipped in the polls, but who will now campaign for Strange in the days leading up to the election.

For weeks, polls gave Moore a healthy lead in the contest, sometimes a double-digit lead. The latest poll has it as a tossup; it's hard to say if that result is: (1) an outlier, (2) the product of a dubious polling house, or (3) a response to recent revelations about Moore and some of his more unsavory ideas. Whatever the case may be, there is no way that Trump and Bannon can both triumph here, since they are on opposite sides of the battle. This will presumably not be good for their already tenuous relationship, and will serve to undermine the reputation of one or the other as a "kingmaker." (Z)

Don't Tell the President Which Washington Rally Had the Higher Attendance

For many months, Donald Trump's supporters have been planning a massive rally in Washington. Called "The Mother of All Rallies," it was supposed to give the President's advocates a chance to show their enthusiasm and to remind the country how large the movement is. Meanwhile, for several weeks, fans of the rap-rock band Insane Clown Posse—known as Juggalos—have been planning a Washington rally of their own. Their purpose was to put on their clown makeup and descend on the capital in protest the FBI's designation of the Juggalos as a "loosely organized hybrid gang."

So, which rally drew more? Well, about 1,500 Juggalos showed up, compared to about 300 Trump supporters. Far from being the mother of all rallies, it was more like the third cousin, twice removed of all rallies. In fairness, they didn't have Violent J or Shaggy 2 Dope as drawing cards. If only they could have gotten Violent Jared or Shaggy 2 Donald to show up. In any event, while the juxtaposition of the two events is certainly amusing, it also suggests that enthusiasm for President Trump is waning. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that The Donald himself has held no rallies since the Phoenix fiasco. (Z)

Trump Associates on Their Own When it Comes to Legal Costs

Donald Trump is famously (1) cheap, and (2) loyal to nobody but himself. It is no surprise, then, that as the S.S. Trump Administration takes on water, it's every man for himself when it comes to legal costs. That fact was made particularly clear on Saturday, as former campaign aide Michael Caputo told the Washington Examiner that he's been forced to dip into his kids' college fund to help pay his bills. "It's very expensive and nobody's called me and offered to help," he said. "The problem is, it's very specialized representation, so it takes a certain type of attorney, and they're quite competent. And you'll pay for competency."

While The Donald's approach here is not surprising, it does seem rather shortsighted. First of all, setting aside $10 million or so for legal fees would be a relative drop in the bucket for him. And even if self-interest is his only concern, one would think that $10 million would still be a good investment. After all, as members of Team Trump are grilled by veteran FBI officials, doesn't he want them being protected by the best lawyers possible? And doesn't Trump want them to go into those interviews with warm feelings about him, as opposed to being resentful that he's left them to their own devices? He would do well to remember that Richard Nixon was brought down by one-time loyalists who felt they had been screwed by Tricky Dick. (Z)

California Declares Itself a "Sanctuary State"

Several states—Washington, New York, Oregon, Massachusetts—appear to be in competition to show that they are the most anti-Trump of them all. This week, California has staked its own claim to that title. On Friday, the state assembly passed a bill requiring presidential candidates to submit five years' worth of tax forms—an obvious shot across the bow of the President. And on Saturday, the state senate adopted Senate Bill 54, aka the "California Values Act," which declares all of California to be a "sanctuary state."

The bill is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown (D), and will protect undocumented immigrants from possible deportation by effectively forbidding all state officials (police, teachers, DMV employees, etc.) from sharing information about a person's immigration status with the federal government. It's a fairly bold gesture in the direction of the White House, though we might find it a little bolder if it hadn't come one day after a federal judge ruled that the federal government cannot withhold funding from sanctuary cities. Presumably, that injunction extends to sanctuary states as well, and means that the California legislators are going to be able to have their cake and eat it too. (Z)

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