After Tom Price resigned as Secretary of Health and Human Services for using private planes on official business, the department was headless for months. Yesterday the Senate confirmed Alex Azar as the new secretary, largely along party lines. Azar was a former executive at Eli Lilly. The department is the largest one in the federal government, with a budget of $1.1 trillion.
Azar is a true conservative and will surely move the department to the right. Some hot positions that he endorses are rules to protect workers who refuse to provide services that offend their religious beliefs and others to force people on Medicaid to work. He also opposes the Affordable Care Act and supports allowing insurance companies to offer, and people to buy, "junk insurance" that is very cheap, but covers very little, so nominally they are insured but in reality they really are not. He also opposes the idea of having the government negotiate with the drug companies on pricing for drugs used by Medicare recipients. (V)
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders yesterday told reporters that Donald Trump will send a long-awaited immigration framework to Congress on Monday. She wouldn't say what would be in it, possibly because neither she nor Trump knows. In particular, Trump has changed his mind on protections for dreamers multiple times. Key unknowns include whether dreamers will be allowed to stay, and if so, under what conditions. Also unknown is if they will have a path to citizenship eventually. Republicans generally oppose this, but leaving it out could be a deal breaker for Democrats. Trump, for his part, chatted with a group of reporters on Wednesday and said he's open to granting the dreamers citizenship. Of course, his position on virtually any issue can change by the hour, so who knows what it will be on Monday?
Two items that are expected are (1) an end to the diversity lottery, in which green cards are distributed by chance to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. (what Trump would call "shithole countries"), and (2) an end to what Republicans call chain migration, by which a new citizen can sponsor his relatives, who can later become citizens and sponsor more relatives. Funding for the border wall is likely also to be in there. (V)
On Tuesday, it became 100% clear that Robert Mueller wants to talk to Donald Trump, ideally sooner rather than later. On Wednesday, while talking to reporters, Trump welcomed the prospect, declaring that "I am looking forward to it, actually. Here is the story: There has been no collusion whatsoever. There is no obstruction whatsoever." When asked if he was willing to speak under oath, the President said, "I would do it under oath, yeah."
Offering to speak to Mueller on exactly the terms preferred by the Special Counsel is, of course, a rather unwise negotiating position for the greatest dealmaker of all time to assume. Whether he believes it or not, Trump already has some exposure (maybe a lot of exposure) when it comes to collusion and to obstruction of justice. Given his freewheeling style, his fast-and-loose approach to the truth, and his unwillingness to be coached by counsel (or anyone else), he would be walking right into the wolf's den and setting himself up for a perjury charge or twenty. As if the other legal issues weren't already enough.
Why would Trump make such an offer? Three basic possibilities would seem to present themselves:
Whichever of the three it is, Trump's lawyers did exactly what they are supposed to do, and promptly dialed back their client's promises. In particular, they said that Trump was speaking hurriedly, and that when he said "under oath" he didn't actually mean "under oath." Perhaps that will smooth things over, or perhaps not. Certainly, it just became a fair bit easier for Trump's opponents to observe that a person who offers to speak under oath, then promptly changes their mind, generally has something to hide. Legally, though, it doesn't really matter whether Trump is under oath or not. Lying to a government employee (including Mueller) is a felony, whether you are under oath or not. (Z)
Special counsel Robert Mueller is going to interview former White House strategist Steve Bannon before the end of January, according to two sources. Mueller wants to find out what Bannon knows about the firings of former NSA Michael Flynn and former FBI Director James Comey. Also on Mueller's agenda is what Bannon knows about whatever pressure Donald Trump exerted on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to quash the FBI investigation of Russia's meddling in the election. All of these topics point to Mueller's potential interest in charging Trump with obstruction of justice.
Also likely to come up in the interview are the many quotes from Michael Wolff's best-selling book. Specifically, Bannon said that money laundering is the key to understanding Trump's relationship with Russia. Given that mutliple members of Mueller's team are specialists at prosecuting money laundering, they are likely to ask detailed questions about what Bannon meant and what he knows. He may just have been shooting off at the mouth, but he may also know things that Mueller doesn't know yet. Bannon also called the meeting between several people close to Trump and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya at Trump Tower in June 2016 "treasonous." No doubt Mueller will want more details on what he meant by that. In addition, there are many more leads that Mueller is following where Bannon might be able to provide details. (V)
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin yesterday welcomed a weaker U.S. dollar, which sent the greenback reeling on world currency exchanges. For example, it now costs $1.24 to buy one euro. In Nov. 2017, a euro cost $1.16. A year ago, one could be had for $1.03. A weak dollar makes U.S. exports cheaper in other countries, but makes imports more expensive. This benefits exporters but hurts consumers. Trump can expect praise from companies that export a lot, such as Boeing and John Deere, but boos from companies that import a lot, like Walmart. Countries with weak economies often debase their currencies to promote exports, but traditionally the U.S. has supported a strong dollar. The remarks came just before Donald Trump is going to address the assembled plutocrats and government leaders in Davos tomorrow. (V)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is a busy beaver these days. Or maybe a tireless turtle. In any case, if dealing with the budget and immigration were not enough in the next week or so, he's also decided to hold a vote on a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks, except in (some) cases of rape or incest. Instances of rape or incest that were not reported to authorities would not be covered. Nor is there currently a provision in the bill granting exceptions for when the mother's health is at risk, or when the fetus becomes nonviable. "Congress has an opportunity to take a step forward...I'm pleased to have filed cloture on this bill to protect unborn children who are capable of feeling pain," announced McConnell. Donald Trump also expressed his support for the bill, which is very similar to a measure passed by the House of Representatives last year.
There is little chance that this bill becomes the law of the land. The Democrats—who, remember, are bending over backwards to appeal to women voters in 2018—are not going to give McConnell the votes he needs to get to 60 and overcome a filibuster. Even if they do, the bill would never survive a court challenge, particularly without provisions relating to the health of the mother. And in the end, McConnell likely doesn't care if the bill becomes law or not. Certainly he must know that only a small percentage of abortions take place beyond the 20-week mark (a little more than 1%), and that nearly all of those are special cases, like when the health of the mother is at risk. In other words, the proposed legislation would address a "problem" that essentially doesn't exist. So, what is McConnell's game, then? The likeliest possibility is that the GOP plans to really hammer on abortion as a wedge issue in order to try and get as many Republicans to the polls as is possible in November. Of course, Republicans have been doing that for decades, so it's a good question how effective McConnell's maneuvering will be in rallying the troops. The other possibility is that McConnell is bringing the bill up as a favor to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who is the sponsor, and for whom this is a pet issue. They may even have some sort of double-secret deal involving Graham's vote on the budget and/or immigration. (Z)
The Democratic field for 2020 is, of course, still coming into focus (and will be for another 28 months or so). On Wednesday, someone rather unexpected hinted at a run: former senator, secretary of state, and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. This possibility was enough of a surprise that Irish sports book PaddyPower didn't even have him on the board, which meant they thought him less likely to become president in 2020 than Mark Zuckerberg (20/1), Michael Bloomberg (25/1), Caroline Kennedy (40/1), rapper Eminem (66/1), Steve Bannon (80/1), Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (100/1), Chelsea Clinton (150/1), wrestling tycoon Vince McMahon (200/1), and tabloid celebrity Kim Kardashian (500/1), among others.
Presumably, this was just idle chit-chat from Kerry, and once he thinks about it, he'll drop the idea. First of all, he has no obvious constituency. He's not liberal enough to steal the hearts of the progressive wing of the Party from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), he's not salt-of-the-earth enough to outduel Joe Biden, he's not a woman, he's not a minority, and he's getting up there in years (he'd be 77 on Inauguration Day) at a time when many Democrats are yearning for new blood. He wouldn't even be able to count on his home state of Massachusetts, what with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) likely to be in the running. Beyond that, Kerry seems to have forgotten that he just doesn't excite Democratic voters. He ran a lackluster campaign in 2004, and was unable to knock off a pretty unpopular opponent. Indeed, he's the only Democratic nominee in the last 30 years to lose the popular vote. If he actually does run, well, let's just say that Kardashian is still probably the smarter bet. (Z)
Presidential physician Dr. Ronny Jackson proclaimed that Donald Trump is in excellent health. Historically, such proclamations should be taken with a barrel of salt—or better yet, with a barrel of low-fat, soy-based, gluten-free, organic yogurt. Presidents and their doctors have been lying about presidential health for centuries. Here are just a few of the most egregious examples:
Of course, reports about the health of the U.S. president are all completely candid compared to the health reports of leaders of the former Soviet Union. Josef Stalin had a stroke, but the event was kept quiet for four days until he died. Nikita Khrushchev had five strokes, none of which were publicized. Yuri Andropov had kidney disease, but no one outside the Kremlin knew about it. Finally, Boris Yeltsin had five heart attacks in office, none of which were reported. (V)