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Obama's Final Moves to Stymie Trump

Barack Obama is still president for 3 more weeks and is using his last days in office to do some things that president-elect Donald Trump may only be able to undo at considerable political cost, if he can undo them all. Here are nine of the big ones:

  • Sanctions on Russia: As punishment for interfering in the U.S. elections, Obama has put some sanctions on Russia, including expelling 35 diplomats thought to be spies. Trump could invite the spies back, but the political blowback would be substantial. There are also covert operations whose nature is unknown. It may or may not be possible to reverse these, depending what they are.

  • Arctic drilling ban: Using a decades-old law, Obama has banned oil drilling in a large piece of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. Trump can try to reverse the ban, but Democrats will sue, and ultimately the courts will have to sort it out. In any event, drilling will be banned for several years while the case moves through the court system.

  • Middle East: The U.S. allowed a U.N. resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank. U.N. resolutions don't mean a lot, but Trump can't have the resolution withdrawn. Secretary of State John Kerry also criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump's new secretary of state can make nice to Netanyahu of course, but a message has been sent, and battle lines are already being drawn in the U.S.

  • Obamacare enrollment: In the current enrollment period, 6.4 million people signed up for insurance via the ACA marketplaces. The Republicans in Congress can pass a bill abolishing the ACA and Trump can sign it. What Congress can't do is pass a bill making these 6.4 million people happy or making them love the Republican Party.

  • New national monuments: With a stroke of his pen, Obama created two new national monuments—Bears Ears in Utah and Golden Butte in Nevada. No incoming president has ever reversed a national monument designation made by a predecessor. Furthermore, the law Obama used, the Antiquities Act, clearly gives the president the power to create new national monuments, but has no provision for a president to destroy one. Congress could try to change the Act, but Senate Democrats would filibuster it and it is very unlikely that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would want to pick a fight over this when there are so many bigger fish to fry.

  • Closing the NSEERS registry: George W. Bush created a registry used to track Muslim men in the U.S. It was called NSEERS. Obama formally dismantled it. Trump could ask Congress to create a new one, but that would create a huge battle and the Senate Democrats would certainly filibuster it.

  • Guantanamo Bay transfers: Obama plans to move some of the 59 prisoners currently at Guantanamo Bay to other countries before he leaves office. Depending on which countries he moves them to, it might not be possible to get them back. The prison will remain open, however.

  • Pardons and commutations: Obama has already reduced the sentences for more than 1,000 nonviolent drug offenders and pardoned more than 100 more. He will no doubt continue pardoning people right up to the last minute. There is no way for Trump to un-pardon someone.

  • Farewell address: Obama will almost certainly deliver a farewell address before leaving office. While the address doesn't change any laws or regulations, it does have the possibility of putting certain items on the national agenda, and encouraging Democrats to talk about them going forward, whether Trump wants that conversation or not.

In short, Obama plans to go out with a bang, not a whimper. (V)

Obama Meeting with Congressional Democrats to Strategize on Obamacare

Speaking of going out with a bang, President Obama is working with Congressional Democrats—pretty much the only Democrats who will be left in Washington after January 20—on plans to save Obamacare. He will meet with all of the members on Wednesday to plot strategy.

The tools that the blue team has at their disposal are limited, but potentially potent. There's the filibuster (which will only work for non-budgetary matters), and possibly the court system. Most important may well be publicity; the more voters become aware of what life without Obamacare, Medicare, and Medicaid might look like, the less enthusiastic they are likely to be. In fact, as HuffPo's Jonathan Cohn points out, the same may also be true of Donald Trump. The Democrats are already organizing national rallies on January 15, and that surely will just be the beginning. (Z)

McConnell Will Play a Key Role in 2017

David Lightman at McClatchy thinks that the key D.C. insider to watch in 2017 is not Donald Trump or Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), but Mitch McConnell. Relatively little of Donald Trump's agenda can be done by him alone. He needs Congress for most of it. Ryan has a 47-seat majority in the House, and House rules make it easy to ram anything through with only 218 votes. The bottleneck will be the Senate, where Republicans cannot afford to lose even three senators on any vote, starting with confirmations. A number of senators have problems with Trump, so McConnell will need all of his considerable skill to get people confirmed and bills passed, especially if the Democrats stay united and vote "no" on everything he brings to the Senate floor.

His first test will be getting Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson confirmed. Several Republican senators have expressed misgivings about Tillerson's ties to Vladimir Putin, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). If they vote "no," all it takes is one more defection to sink the nomination and hand Trump a black eye right at the start of his term. (V)

Trump Praises Putin

Yesterday, Donald Trump praised Vladimir Putin as "very smart" for not retaliating against the new U.S. sanctions imposed to punish Russia for interfering in the U.S. elections. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), a member of the House Select Intelligence Committee, accused Russia of trying to control Trump with the "shrewd" decision not to retaliate. He added that Putin thinks he can get what he wants by just flattering Trump, so why risk anything over a few expulsions? (V)

Trump Planning to Keep Private Security Force

Though he has had Secret Service protection for more than six months, Donald Trump continues to employ private bodyguards as part of his security detail. This week, his team made clear that they do not expect that arrangement to change. This is not only unprecedented, it is a very bad idea, for all kinds of reasons. Here are a few of them:

  • The U.S. Secret Service is the best in the world at what they do; they don't need additional help.
  • Having to coordinate with outsiders will make the USSS less effective, not more so.
  • The USSS is loyal to the country and to the presidency, first and foremost. Employees of Trump, not so much.
  • On a related note, private security forces are the stuff of banana republics, not the world's leading democracy.
  • The USSS obeys the law as regards the rights of private citizens; private security, not necessarily.
  • If the President himself has no confidence in the government, what message does that send to citizens?
  • If Trump is paying the security bills, it deprives Congress of the oversight that the system of checks and balances is founded on.
  • It sets a dangerous precedent; if Trump can hire his own "soldiers," then why not the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Director of the CIA, or Attorney General?

Jon D. Michaels, writing for CNN, has produced a blistering critique that expands on most of these concerns. It's well worth reading in full. (Z)

Spend New Year's Eve With the Trumps for Under $600

This year, as it has done for the past two years, Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida will host a New Year's Eve soiree, with tickets going for $525 a pop for club members and $575 for guests. As has also been the case for the last two years, the Trump family will be in attendance. Of course, this year, there is one tiny difference—Trump is now the President-elect of the United States, and his family is about to become very powerful. Consequently, this year's Mar-a-Lago event has raised eyebrows, for much the same reason that Ivanka Trump's abortive coffee date and the Trump sons' "conservation" fundraiser did: The Trumps seem to be selling access. Incoming White House Director of Strategic Communications Hope Hicks downplayed these concerns, saying, "The transition is not concerned about the appearance of a conflict. This is an annual celebratory event at the private club, like others that have continued to occur since the election. Additionally, the president cannot and does not have a conflict."

Really, there are only two possibilities here: Either Team Trump is being dishonest, or they are being naive. The first possibility is self explanatory. As to the second, it's certainly possible that the Trumps feel no differently about this year's event than they did about last year's, and that they will attend with exactly the same mindset. The problem, of course, is that may not be true (in fact, almost certainly won't be true) for the ticket buyers. For lobbyists and corporate interests across the country, a price tag of less than $600 is a bargain, even if it only affords the mere possibility of bending the President-elect's ear for two minutes. And until the Trumps recognize this (not to mention how important appearances are), we're going to see this same story over and over again. (Z)

Inauguration Planning Keeps Leaving Egg on Trump's Face

Presidential inaugurations have not always been star-studded affairs, with politicos and celebrities rubbing elbows. That's a development that dates back to FDR in the 1930s, but since that time, presidents have not had much of a problem filling the bill with entertainers. Until 2016, that is—Donald Trump's team has been turned down by so many A-listers (and even some B-listers) that his inaugural is starting to take on a decidedly pre-FDR feel.

At the moment, the headliners are "America's Got Talent" contestant Jackie Evancho, the Radio City Rockettes, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Except that some of Rockettes don't want to be there, and are going to sit it out. Also, at least one Mormon quit the choir this week, preferring that option to honoring Trump. Beyond the headliners, most of the other participants confirmed for the weekend are groups that are either (1) affiliated with the military, (2) affiliated with the police, or (3) children's performance groups from red states, like the "Lil Wranglers" (Texas) or the "Boone County Elite 4-H Equestrian Drill Team" (Indiana). A full list is here.

It's remarkable that the inaugural planners (led by "The Apprentice" producer Mark Burnett) can't come up with a few right-leaning celebrities who are willing to show up. Ted Nugent, for example, or Charlie Daniels, or something like 80% of country music stars. That said, if there was a match there, presumably those people would have also been available for the decidedly low-wattage Republican National Convention. Perhaps Burnett is going to have to settle for Scott Baio and the cast of "Duck Dynasty" doing interpretative dance. (Z)

North Carolina Judge Temporarily Blocks New Republican Laws

After Roy Cooper (D) was elected governor of North Carolina, the state legislature met in a special session to pass a pair of laws reducing the governor's powers and making voting more difficult. Outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory (R-NC) signed them. Among other things, the new laws weaken the State Board of Elections, reduce the number of people the governor can hire and fire from 1,500 to 425, require state senate confirmation for cabinet appointments, and take away the governor's power to appoint trustees to the University of North Carolina system. Cooper sued and a judge stayed the new laws yesterday. The court will hear the case next week. (V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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