Deal or No Deal? No Deal…. This Time. But More Will Come

“Obamacare is the law of the land. … We’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future.”  — Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) on 24 March 2017

The last ten days of the Donald Trump Administration has had more drama and newsworthy events than any recent presidency in memory.  Most of it was not good news.  Not good for the country and not good for the Trump Administration.  Ranging from the revelation that the FBI is conducting a long-term investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and foreign entities, to the failure of the House of Representatives to vote on a replacement for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The American Health Care Act (AHCA) was pulled by Speaker Ryan because of its sure defeat in the House.  A defeat I may add, that came despite the fact that the Republicans had a majority in the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House.

There are many reasons why the bill failed, and I am sure that pundits will dissect those reasons at length as time goes by.  Among the most prominent in my view, is that as the final push began to go from theory to an actual bill, the Republicans lost sight of policy and focused primarily on politics. In so doing they ended up changing the bill in ways that left only 17% of Americans in favor of it replacing the ACA.

Despite President Trump’s promise on 17 January 2017 that his health care bill was nearly finished and would be revealed shortly, he apparently did not have one of his own and went with the proposal crafted by Speaker Ryan.  In that January interview, President Trump also insisted that his health care bill would provide “insurance for everybody” and that people “can expect to have great health care. It will be in a much simplified form. Much less expensive and much better.”  Which, surprisingly from this administration, turned out not to be true.

One could also ask why after seven years of campaigning on “repeal and replace” the Republicans did not have a viable plan, worked on by all factions of their party, with the contentious issues litigated before hand, ready to go?  It became a lesson for the new majority that opposition is much easier than leadership.

Speaking of leading, President Trump learned that leading the nation and a divided government is much different, and I would add more difficult, than running Trump, Inc.  The “closer” couldn’t close and he found that threats to an equal branch of government do not carry much water when the president’s approval rating is only in the 30’s and his disapproval rating is in the high 50’s.

There are other significant issues at play and we will see how things work out in the coming months as the president moves on to more “fun” (his word) endeavors such as tax reform and infrastructure renewal.  However, I think that all concerned are naive to believe that health care is resolved for the future.  In many ways, this is just round one of a longer, continuing saga.  As always, the devil is in the details and there are many details yet to be resolved before the battle of the ACA vs. AHCA is over.

Recall that President Trump and others continually repeat that the ACA is a “disaster” and in his usual method of communicating complicated issues, tweeted that “ObamaCare will explode and we will all get together and piece together a great healthcare plan for THE PEOPLE. Do not worry!”  One of many such tweets where he constantly reiterates that ObamaCare (the ACA) will “explode” or “implode” depending on his mood of the day, and blaming everyone — Republicans, Democrats, bureaucrats, a long list — for the failure of the bill to pass the House.  He blames everyone but himself or his dogmatic but very inexperienced staff, even as insiders say that he never really understood the policy behind the bill, nor really had much interest in it other than as a tag line during the campaign.

“Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.” — President Trump on 27 February 2017

Here is the real point.  In fact, President Trump and his administration can turn his prediction into a self-fulfilling prophecy.  By regulatory action, or inaction, and by refusing to defend or promote the current system, they can indeed cause it to fail.  Not tomorrow, not the next day, but over time they can ensure that it fails without the proper attention to implementing its provisions.

Nearly all impartial adjudicators, including the Congressional Budget Office, state that under current provisions, the ACA will not explode, implode, or otherwise become a disaster.  It is working. However, it is not working perfectly and could use improvement.  In particular the number of insurance companies participating are decreasing, and deductibles in some areas are increasing. There is some debate as to whether this is happening because of the uncertainty that surrounded the ACA leading into the introduction of the AHCA or other factors.  Generally, the experts say that this trend can be reversed and in any case, does not impact all Americans.

The ACA — ObamaCare if you will — can be improved and should be improved.  Just like Social Security and other programs, the original plans are rarely perfect and it is entirely reasonable to see changes that improve the process and benefits.  Hopefully, now that the histrionics from both parties are over, the real leaders of the House and Senate can sit down in a bipartisan way and work on fixing the things that need to be fixed in the ACA.  I am not optimistic that it will happen. It will be difficult because from a policy viewpoint it is expensive and from a political viewpoint the Republican majority cannot pass such legislation without significant numbers of Democrats on board.  Thus far they have shown themselves to be unbelievably reluctant to pass anything that needs Democrats to carry the day. Conversely, at this point in time, Democrats are unwilling to show support for much of anything that President Trump is pushing.  That said, I am more confident that President Trump will be willing to work with Democrats and they may in turn be willing to work with him, on the right issues.

Unfortunately, the Secretary of Human Health and Services Tom Price made a career in the House of Representatives by opposing the ACA.  Now that he is the Secretary he can make regulatory changes that lessens the coverage provided by the ACA.  He can refuse to defend in it court when challenged and he can refuse to advertise re-enrollment dates and other factors that makes it harder for people to access and benefit from the Act.  Whether this will happen or not,  time will tell, but as the president and others continue to insist that the ACA will collapse, it is entirely possible that Secretary Price will help to make matters worse.

President Trump now has the opportunity to demonstrate whether or not he is the great negotiator that he claims to be.  He can choose to show real leadership and bring the parties together and do something positive for all Americans or he can show us that his “repeal and replace” sloganeering was only that — an applause line without substance.  So far his stated intention is to “move on.”

What he cannot do is claim that he no longer has any responsibility for the future of health care in the United States, which is what he tried to do last Friday.

“I think the losers are Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer because now they own Obamacare. They own it – a hundred percent own it. And this is not a Republican health care. This is not anything but a Democrat health care. And they have Obamacare for a little while longer, until it ceases to exist, which it will at some point in the near future.  And just remember. This is not our bill. This is their bill.”  — President Trump on 24 March 2017

Sorry, Mr. President.  I regret to inform you that you are the president of the entire nation and that you are responsible for the well-being of all its citizens.  And oh, by the way, it was the Republicans that could not get themselves organized to pass their own bill.

Let us all work for a better deal in the future.

 

 

 

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A Disturbing Conclusion

Another day, another Trump story dominating the news.  I will eventually again write about something other than our president, but it is hard to ignore the elephant in the room when every morning there is some new statement by the president or his staff that is cringe worthy.  Be it wire tapping (with or without “quotation marks” — this is what we have come down to — or misspellings) or microwaves as cameras, every day there is something.  We as citizens need to look past the daily “guess what they just said” comments and try to discern what is really going on.

Avoiding a discussion on the Trump Administration policies for the moment, which is hard to do, there is a different picture I am trying to understand.  And believe me, trying to ignore his proposals is difficult, be it the American Health Care Act (or Trumpcare — no, no, it’s Ryancare — no, no Trumpcare) or the president’s budget proposals that gut many essential programs and departments. Those proposals, as good or as bad as they may be depending on one’s political views, are just that, proposals. The Congress ultimately will pass, or not, the AHCA and any president’s budget proposals are more of a wish list and indicator of their administration’s priorities rather than the actual budget, which is also the purview of the Congress.

I am focused for the moment on trying to figure out exactly what is going on with those things that the president actually controls and what they may portend.  To some degree, it is necessary to get down in the weeds to see where things are headed.  There are several troubling indicators of how President Trump intends to run his administration.

At first I could not figure out if the nonsensical and illogical tweets, statements, and press briefings were the sign of an administration in disarray, trying to find its bearings or something else.  I have come to believe it is something else.  Many pundits have already commented on the fact that every time the media or the public focuses on some inane action or statement from the president or his staff, some new, head line grabbing tweet or statement comes out.  Some call President Trump the Distractor-in-Chief (DIC?).  That may be part of it, but I think there is a larger more insidious goal.  President Trump continually calls any reporting he does not like “fake news.”  Beyond that he and his staff continually attack the media and put out statements that are proven to be untruthful, yet they double down and insist that it is true by pointing to some off-the-wall media source as the “proof” of their statements. This is deliberate — not flaky, or anti-PC, or any other excuse attributed to the activity. I say again, it is deliberate.  The White House staff is deliberately and systematically trying to undermine the credibility of the serious news outlets in the United States.  Coupled with the stated disdain of the intelligence community so often reiterated by the president and his advisers, there is a very deliberate effort to create an atmosphere of distrust where nothing is ground truth.  Once such an atmosphere exists, the administration can say and do anything that they want to do and they will then claim black is white and only they know what is going on.  Trust them.  How many times has Senior Adviser Kelly Anne Conway (and others) gone on a news show and defended some outrageous statement from the president?  When pressed for evidence that such statements are true, how many times has she said words to the effect that “well, the president has access to information that I do not have so he must know what he is talking about?”  No proof.  No logic.  Only that if the president said it, it has to be true, no matter how outrageous.   And how many times when personally pressed does the president decline to give proof to defend a statement and only says something along the lines of “more information will be coming out in about two weeks.  It will be amazing.  You won’t believe what is going on.  It will surprise you.  Believe me.”  Have you noticed that it is always in two weeks?  And then two weeks, months, years, pass and nothing more comes out.

This approach seriously undermines the credibility of the president.  If anyone were to pay attention. Seemingly most Americans shrug it off as that’s “Trump being Trump” or as the “mainstream media” trying to undermine his presidency.  Never mind that the media merely plays what the president or his advisers actually say and then for some strange reason ask them to provide the basis for the statement. How unfair!

You can take it to the bank that our friends and enemies are paying attention.

That is why I am so troubled.  Either the president does not care that his credibility suffers, credibility that will be crucial when a real crisis hits our country, or he is risking his credibility in order to undermine the veracity of any source of information outside the White House so that only his version of the truth is available.  A harsh assessment, I admit, but increasingly I am unable to come up with any other explanation for the way that he and his staff conduct business.  What began as mildly amusing behavior morphed to incredulity to concerns about sanity to fear that it is intentional.

And there is more.

There are some good people working in the Trump administration.  Secretary Mattis is one, Lt General McMaster is another, and others, who while I may disagree with their policy views, I respect their integrity and willingness to try to do the right thing.  Many of them signed up with this administration with the caveat that they be able to pick their own people and not be micro-managed by the White House.  So far, that is not happening.

Secretary Mattis has yet to get a second in command, the Deputy Secretary of Defense.  He tried three times so far to get three different people in place.  All rejected by the White House.  There are no other political appointees below the Secretary level at DOD thus far.  One may claim that we need to “drain the swamp” but the reality is that the Secretary cannot do everything by himself.  Skilled, knowledgeable people with expertise in everything from procurement to regional alliances need to be in place to make U.S. policy effective.  Right now, nobody.  Likewise, in the State Department. Secretary Tillison’s nominees for his subordinate political positions are zero for everyone.  None has gotten past the White House.  Just as troubling to those that understand how such things work, last week the Mexican Foreign Minister, the direct counter part to Secretary Tillerson was in Washington for talks and the State Department did not even know he was in town, much less participate in the discussions. Only the White House inner circle participated.  National Security Adviser McMaster found out last week that, in fact, he cannot pick his own staff.  He tried to have a Trump campaign supporter now in charge of national intelligence for the National Security Council moved to a different job so that NSA McMaster could put a more qualified and effective person in that slot.  The staffer went to the president, on the advice of Mr. Steve Bannon, and NSA McMaster was overruled. There are a multitude of similar examples were one to peel away the layers and look inside the various departments and agencies in the Executive Branch.

Even if all that is true, who cares?  So what?  Why write about it except for sour grapes?

There are at least two reasons to take note.  The most benign concern is that our nation’s defense and foreign policies, to name two, cannot be thoroughly vetted, reviewed and implemented without the right people (any people!) in place.  No matter how good the Secretary may be, he or she is only one person and cannot do it all alone.  The more serious concern is that the White House staff, the close inner circle to the president, may not want any effective push back from the Defense or State Departments or other agencies.  They may want only the White House inner circle to promulgate and execute policy.  The Cabinet’s job is merely to act as props (see almost every signing ceremony in the White House) or cheerleaders for the president.

President Trump’s style as a businessman was to have a small, totally loyal, inner circle that carried out his decisions.  By all accounts describing his style, President Trump is not much for details and makes decisions by using his “gut instincts.”  His close inner circle then carries on and implements what they understand to be his intent.  This may work in a real estate business, but it does not work well in an undertaking as large as the United States government, especially when the current inner circle takes great pride in stating that they have no experience.  When they also refuse, or limit, the input from those that do have knowledge and expertise, something is brewing.  It is either a disaster waiting to happen, or something more sinister, such as a drift towards centralized, autocratic control of the nation.

When all of the pieces of the puzzle are together — and there are more including Mr. Bannon’s view of the world, his declaration to “dismantle the administrative state,” blaming “the deep state” for the failures of their policies, lashing out at the judiciary, claiming  that former President Obama is running a shadow government with the aim of stopping the Trump administration, among others — it paints a troubling picture.

At first I thought that maybe they were just experiencing growing pains, not unusual for a new administration.  Then I thought that maybe the staff was just trying to deal with a loose cannon in President Trump — which could be dangerous, but the experienced hands would eventually bring him back to reality.  Now I am beginning to see that it is actually a plan.  What I have not decided upon is whether President Trump is the visionary using his staff, or whether Mr. Bannon is the visionary using the president to fulfill his own view of re-ordering the world.

I absolutely have not given up on the ship of state being righted and put back on a steady course. There are positive signs such as the Congress (after only about 8 months!) investigating the impact of Russian meddling on our national election.  Equally soothing is that more and more Representatives and Senators, of both parties, have nicely said that the president lied when he stated that President Obama had Trump Towers and the campaign “wire tapped.”  The judicial system is working to check the executive over reach of some of the president’s Executive Orders.  The system is working as intended, even if in fits and starts. It remains incumbent on all Americans to keep our eyes wide open and call “foul” when appropriate. Likewise, we need to give credit where it is due.  All is not lost, not even close, but I still worry.  If we see this seeming chaos from self-inflicted crises within the White House, one wonders what will happen when a real crisis erupts.  History teaches us that one eventually will come along.  And probably sooner than later.

When it happens, that will be the true test of this administration.  My nightmare scenario is given the chaos and attempts to undermine anything that runs counter to White House wishes now, while in a period of relative calm with a strong economy and no direct existential threats to our well-being, what will happen in a major crisis?  Will the administration draw upon the many talented and experienced resources our nation and our government has to solve the problem or will they draw even more inward in an attempt to use the crisis to consolidate more power and move further towards autocracy?

I have no crystal ball and have no idea how things will unfold.  The signs thus far leave me greatly troubled about the future of our great nation, more so than at any point in my life.

 


Keep Your Eye On The Ball

A basic admonition for success in a variety of sports such as baseball, golf and many others, is to keep your eye on the ball and follow through.  The same is true for politics.  Distractions come easily and it is easy to lose track of the original issue.  Such seems to be the case with the fireworks surrounding the knowledge that Russia interfered with our 2016 presidential election.

In a rare show of unanimity, last fall and again in January this year, the U.S. intelligence community briefed the outgoing and incoming presidents on the Russian meddling.  Much of the information is highly classified, but we as citizens can be sure that it happened, otherwise, we can trust nothing that our professionals in intelligence and highly respected leaders tell us.  They do not make such accusations lightly or without serious and deep consideration as to the facts and the repercussions. As a result of their findings, President Obama in September 2016, in a face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, told him to “cut it out” with regards to Russian cyber attacks and hacking — notably before the election. Claims that he did so to create a “ruse” because the Democrats are “sore losers” holds no validity when the warning came before the election.  In October, again before the election, President Obama used the “red phone” — used to avert nuclear attacks between the two nations — to again warn Mr. Putin about the continued interference in the election. In late December President Obama implemented additional sanctions against Russia and expelled 35 Russian diplomats accused of spying within the United States because of the Russian attempts at meddling.  These are facts.

In and of itself, every American should be outraged that there is incontrovertible evidence that the Russians attempted to interfere with our most sacred ritual as a nation — the election of our president. This outrage should supersede any sense of Republican, Democrat, Independent, liberal, conservative or any other political category one can imagine.  America was under attack.  This seemed to be forgotten as our new president initially, and for a lengthy amount of time, refused to acknowledge these facts.  Facts that should outrage any serious leader of our nation.  Instead in a news conference on 11 January 2017 he attacked our intelligence community and compared them to “Nazis.”  He only reluctantly concluded that “as far as the hacking, I think it was Russia” before adding “it could have been others also.”

For whatever reason — ego, appealing to his base, purposely trying to create chaos for some political objective, or trying to cover up the truth — President Trump continues to deny that the Russians had any significant effect or were in fact trying to influence, if not to change, the election.  This continued denial, along with accusing the intelligence community of trying to undermine him and all the other shenanigans now coming out of the White House must stop.  Enough!  This is not a serious presidency if this is the way that they will conduct themselves over the next four years.  It is amateur hour.

The current brouhaha surrounds who did or did not meet with representatives and agents of the Russian government and for what reasons.  This is where the obfuscation continues.  While we argue over whether then Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala) met with the Russian Ambassador in his role as a Senator or as a member of the Trump campaign and oh by the way Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) ate donuts with the Ambassador in 1992 is beside the point.  Way beside the point.  One could argue, on purpose beside the point.  Deliberate distractions to keep our eyes off the ball.

Now Attorney General. Mr. Sessions says he “misspoke” about his contact with the Ambassador. Perhaps so. The problem is that in both oral and written testimony during his confirmation hearing he claimed that he had no contact with any member of the Russian government.  Just as former (remember he got fired) National Security Adviser Lt. General Michael Flynn said nearly the same thing. Just as more and more members of the Trump campaign claimed that they never had contact with any representatives of the Russian government and it is becoming clear that in fact, they did have contact.

Focusing on all of those individual circumstances may or may not have significance.  We simply do not know.  Here is what we do know.  Starting with the first reports of the hacking of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager Mr. John Podesta’s emails (an event seemingly predicted by one of Mr. Trump’s then advisers Mr. Roger Stone before they were released by Wikileaks), Mr. Trump and his staff continually denied that any, repeat any, contact with the Russians simply did not happen.  For example, in November 2016 the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov responded to a press question about contacts with the Trump campaign and said that “there were contacts” with influential people in Trump’s circle. “I don’t say that all of them, but a whole array of them supported contacts with Russian representatives.”  In response, Trump campaign spokesperson Ms. Hope Hicks said, “It never happened. There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.”  This is one of at least twenty separate official denials that there had been any contact with the Russians. Assertions we now know to be false.

Remember that this is an administration that deals in “alternative facts.”

Still, I think all of this who-talked-to-who-and-when is beside the point.  It indicates that there is probably some “there” there, but in and of itself is inconclusive.  Any single or even series of contacts could have multiple explanations, some of which are benign.  What is concerning to me, when taken as a whole, is that so many of them occurred and that the campaign and now the administration, continues to cover up and deny that anything at all took place, even in the face of video and audio that refutes their claims.

What are they so anxiously trying to cover up?

Today was the last straw.  One might say that President Trump deployed the metaphorical nuclear option this morning when he tweeted out that President Obama broke the law.  More specifically, in a series of tweets this morning he said:

How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!

–President Trump tweet 7:02 4 Mar 2017

Actual quotes from the President of the United States!  Unconscionable!  Statements such as these are unreasonable and can easily be interpreted to be a calculated effort to create turmoil and unrest in our nation.

There is so much that is wrong with his latest undisciplined reactions it is hard to know where to start. (And it is particularly interesting, or appalling depending on one’s view, that Mr. Trump’s in-your-face style was cultivated by his long time mentor, Mr. Roy Cohn, who was Senator Joe McCarthy’s primary adviser when the McCarthy witch hunt was in full bloom.  I suppose that the circle stays unbroken.) Keeping our eyes on the ball, there are a few facts involved with possible underpinnings in the law — unlike the tweets from President Trump who has offered no evidence or other substantiation of his claims.  This tweet storm is merely intended to divert attention and to change the narrative.  His usual, now predictable, tactic.  When under siege, attack.  (And exactly why do you think you are under siege Mr. President?  Something to hide?)

It is outrageous for a current president to call his predecessor “bad” and it is especially outrageous to call him “sick.”  Perhaps if the shoe fits….

But again, this is a diversionary tactic.  The facts tell a different story.  For example, the president cannot order wire taps on his opponents.  It is against the law and only the most screwball, or clinically paranoid, opponents of President Obama would think that he would blatantly break the law by ordering wire taps.

The most inconvenient fact of all for President Trump is this.  Should it be true that taps of some sort were placed on Trump Tower, they can only be done when a federal judge under the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is presented with probable cause that “foreign powers” or “agents of foreign powers” — which may include U.S. citizens or permanent residents — are suspected of terrorism, colluding with agents of foreign governments against the interests of the U.S., or espionage.  When presented with evidence, the judge may approve physical and electronic surveillance of those individuals and their likely places of operation for espionage or other nefarious purposes.

If the FISA statute was implemented by the FBI and NSA through the Department of Justice, utilizing the provisions of the law through the proper court, then President Trump does indeed have reason to distract us from the real problem.

The president may be out of his league.  It may turn out that he is not so “big league” (often transcribed as “bigly”) as he assumes.  He is up against the full power and strength of the national government and the national press, sworn and determined, respectively, to uphold and protect the Constitution.

President Trump will no doubt continue to make wild, baseless and counter-factual claims.  Sad!  We need to keep our eye on the ball and follow through.