Political Animal Blog

The Worst Week Ever For A First-Term President?

Most of the time political punditry is about either analyzing the present or predicting the future. But today is one of those times when I’m more interested in the past. I’m not talking about the long-distance past – but just the last week.

On Monday, the people at NBC’s First Read suggested that this could be the most consequential week yet in Trump’s presidency. That wasn’t hyperbole. Here are the four things they pointed to as significant questions that would be answered:

1. Does FBI Director Comey publicly repudiate Trump’s wiretapping charge?
2. How far does Comey go on Russia?
3. Does the health-care effort survive — or die?
4. Is Gorsuch’s confirmation still on track?

All of those questions were answered in a way that is devastating for Trump and Republicans – creating the specter of the worst week for a first-term president in our history.

1. Does FBI Director Comey publicly repudiate Trump’s wiretapping charge?

Yes he did. Comey stated that, after investigation, not only did the FBI fail to find evidence to support Trump’s claim, but that the entire Justice Department also failed to do so. Furthermore, NSA Director Michael Rogers repudiated the White House claim that the British had been solicited to spy on Trump for the Obama administration.

In other words, according to the FBI Director, the Justice Department and the NSA Director…Trump lied.

2. How far does Comey go on Russia?

Comey dropped a bombshell. Nothing says it more powerfully than his own words.

I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counter-intelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the fact that the president’s campaign is being investigated by the FBI for possible coordination with Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election. That’s as big as it gets.

3. Does the health-care effort survive — or die?

This is the very recent past. Just this afternoon Republicans pulled their bill to repeal/replace Obamacare because after weeks of wrangling from both Trump and Ryan, they didn’t have the votes to pass it in the House. In short, the Trump/Republican health-care effort died.

Some conservatives are already trying to spin this by suggesting that Paul Ryan manipulated Trump into making repeal of Obamacare the first priority for Republicans. That is a lie.

This was a gigantic failure for Trump right out of the gate and will reverberate throughout his presidency.

Trump himself is attempting to deflect his failure by blaming the Democrats. That too is a lie. The fact is that Republicans set up this entire process to use reconciliation in the Senate in order to avoid having to work with Democrats. Never once did Trump, Ryan or McConnell even try to reach out to them. Republicans decided to go it alone and therefore this failure is theirs alone.

In some ways, Paul Ryan was more honest.

“You have all heard me say this before, moving from an opposition party to a governing party comes with growing pains,” Ryan said at the beginning of a press briefing. “And, well, we’re feeling those growing pains today.”…

“We’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future,” he said.

It’s true that Republicans don’t know how to govern. But they have had a majority in the House now for over 6 years and don’t seem to be “growing” in any way that is discernible.

The end result is that we are going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future. Whew!

4. Is Gorsuch’s confirmation still on track?

The Gorsuch hearings might have been the bright spot for Republicans this week. The nominee managed to be elusive in a pretty sophisticated way. Consequently, there were no severe eruptions.

The bad news for Republicans is that the Democrats announced this week that they will filibuster his nomination – requiring 60 votes for his confirmation. McConnell and his crew have a tough decision to make now: do they go nuclear on the filibuster or risk not getting Gorsuch confirmed. That’s what passes for good news with Republicans this week.

Has any first-term president ever had such a disastrous week? I certainly can’t think of one.

Nunes Says Manafort Can Testify Any Way He Wants

Remember back in December 1992 when Senators John Kerry and Hank Brown released their massive report on the The BCCI Affair? It was put together by the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The committee authorized four writs and seventeen subpoenas and took testimony from dozens of witnesses. You can trust me when I tell you that the senators on the committee did very little of the investigative work. It was mostly done by staff. Compare that to this:

Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said that [Paul] Manafort’s lawyer “contacted the committee yesterday to offer the committee the opportunity to interview his client.”

Nunes did not say whether the Manafort briefing would be public or take place behind closed doors, leaving the decision mostly up to Manafort himself.

“Our lawyers, Republicans and Democrats, will work with his lawyers to see what exactly he wants to do,” Nunes said.

“If he wants to come out in public and have a public hearing, he’s more than welcome to do that,” Nunes continued, adding that if Manafort preferred a closed setting, that is “also fine.”

The public hearing is actually less important than putting him under oath and deposing him at length. What you don’t do with a prime suspect who has clearly been a subject of an eight-month-long FBI-led counterintelligence investigation is let him call the shots on how he will be confronted. Having him testify could compromise a possible prosecution, so it must be handled very delicately. I suppose this is better than offering him immunity, but it’s the furthest thing from how the House Intelligence Committee should be treating this witness. Manafort should have no say in whether he has to testify in public and he should definitely be subpoenaed. There should be no time limitations, and the staff should treat him, as closely as possible, the same way that the FBI would if they were questioning him.

I don’t know how much longer Nunes will get away with this farce, but it’s getting more than just ridiculous. It’s beginning to look criminal. At a certain point, a deliberately sabotaged investigation is a form of obstruction of justice.

This has to be taken away from him and put in the hands of trained professionals.

Does Anyone In the Trump Administration Not Have Ties to Russia?

Perhaps we’ve been asking the wrong question. It’s not so much a matter of which members of the Trump administration (and campaign) have ties with Russia and Vladimir Putin, but whether any of them don’t. The web of those who do now includes Sec. of Commerce Wilbur Ross.

To understand the connection it is important to know that banks on the island of Cyprus have a long history of being used to launder the money of Russian oligarchs. Back in 2014 when the Russians invaded Ukraine, the U.S. Treasury Department began keeping an eye on Cyprian banks in order to recover stolen Ukrainian assets after the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. The AP reports that this investigation by the Treasury Department now includes former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.

Here’s where Wilbur Ross comes into the picture. According to public records reviewed by the AP, one of the banks Manafort used in that country was the Bank of Cyprus. Ross served as the vice-chairman of that bank following an investment of €400m in 2014.

In 2014, the Bank of Cyprus was still considered to be in a precarious state following a dramatic €10bn rescue of Cyprus’s banking sector by the ECB and the IMF. Under the terms of the deal, many of the bank’s wealthy Russian deposit holders lost their cash and became shareholders in the bank.

Ross, who had made billions of dollars years earlier by betting on bankrupt steel mills, was known for taking risky bets. But his decision to inject €400m into the bank with other investors encompassed a different kind of risk. It put him at the centre of the biggest financial institution in a country that was widely considered to be a tax haven for Russian oligarchs…

Among the dealings Ross was involved with during his tenure at the Bank of Cyprus (from which he resigned when he became Commerce Secretary) was the sale of their bank’s Russia-based businesses to  Artem Avetisyan, who had ties to both the Russian president and Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank. Ross had described these assets as worth hundreds of millions of euros, but they were sold for €7m.

His time at the bank also included this decision:

In a separate management decision under Ross’s watch, Bank of Cyprus gave Alfa Bank, Russia’s largest private bank, until 2019 – four more years than originally planned – to pay back a €100m debt it owed in connection to Alfa’s purchase of the bank’s Ukrainian assets.

Perhaps none of this is related to the question of whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the election. As Rep. Schiff said on Monday, perhaps it’s merely another one of those coincidences of yet another person in the Trump administration with ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin. But perhaps not.

As someone who doesn’t typically study the world of international finance, it sure seems odd that a country with such a floundering economy is so attractive to so many of these Trump associates who travel in that world. Perhaps it is commonplace for global capitalists to this routinely have shady business ties with Russia. But it sure strikes me as odd.

Not Even Trump Supports The GOP Healthcare Bill

President Trump sent White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney down to Capitol Hill last night with an ultimatum to pass the health care reform bill or forever keep their peace. The meeting didn’t go well but it did have its moments:

A key moment inside the session, several lawmakers said, was when Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), a freshman lawmaker who lost both his legs in 2010 while serving as an Army bomb disposal technician in Afghanistan, rose and called on his colleagues to unite behind the bill in the same way he and his comrades fought in battle.

A rowdy group of Republicans burst out of the meeting like explorers on a quest for glory. “Burn the ships,” one Republican shouted to House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), invoking the command that Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquistador, gave his men upon landing in Mexico in 1519.

The message was clear, to the GOP leaders now and the Spaniards in 1519, there was no turning back.

As you can see, a significant portion of the House Republican caucus got swept up in the moment. They are ready to “burn the ships,” assuring that there can be no retreat from their mission to repeal health coverage for 26 million people.

But, in the White House, they were making it clear that a vote for TrumpCare is really a vote for ChumpCare.

All the signals are there. Look who doesn’t support this health care bill:

Mr. Trump has told four people close to him that he regrets going along with Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s plan to push a health care overhaul before unveiling a tax cut proposal more politically palatable to Republicans.

He said ruefully this week that he should have done tax reform first when it became clear that the quick-hit health care victory he had hoped for was not going to materialize on Thursday, the seventh anniversary of the act’s passage, when the legislation was scheduled for a vote.

Two of his most influential advisers — Stephen K. Bannon, his chief strategist, and Gary D. Cohn, the National Economic Council director, who had a major role in pushing the bill — came to agree, and did not like the compromise that was emerging…

…To Mr. Trump and his team, the health care repeal is a troublesome stepchild. His son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who is vacationing with his family in Aspen this week, has said for days that the bill was a mistake to support.

So, among the people who think it was either a mistake to take up a health care bill at all or who think it is a mistake to support this particular bill are President Trump, his son-in-law, his top strategist, and his National Economic Council director. They’re leaking that they think failure to pass this bill will be a 100% win for the administration.

And, yet, they sent their Budget Director down to the Hill last night to tell folks to plunge ahead. No retreat, no surrender!

What kind of sucker do you have to be to vote for ChumpCare?

How pissed off would you be if you were a Republican lawmaker who has to decide how to vote on this piece of crap when you have the White House telling you that they’ll go after you if you vote against them and telling the press that they see losing the vote as a 100% win?

You’d have to be a dumb son of a bitch to burn the ships behind you on this vote, especially considering that the bill has the support of about 17% of the people, which is lower even than the Crazification Factor. If you don’t know, the Crazification factor is calculated by looking at how many people preferred Alan Keyes to Barack Obama in the 2004 Illinois Senate race:

Obama vs. Alan Keyes. Keyes was from out of state, so you can eliminate any established political base; both candidates were black, so you can factor out racism; and Keyes was plainly, obviously, completely crazy. Batshit crazy. Head-trauma crazy. But 27% of the population of Illinois voted for him. They put party identification, personal prejudice, whatever ahead of rational judgement. Hell, even like 5% of Democrats voted for him. That’s crazy behaviour. I think you have to assume a 27% Crazification Factor in any population.

When support for something falls below 27%, it’s fair to compare it to head lice, herpes, Dick Cheney, or the filet mignon at Trump Grill. You don’t want to be on the record having supported these things.