Monday, March 27, 2017


The Atlantic's David Graham thinks Donald Trump is well positioned to move to the left now, in the wake of the repeal-and-replace disaster:
... what if ... Trump dodged a serious bullet on Friday, setting him up for a recovery? If that’s the case, Friday might even have perversely been the best day of Trump’s presidency so far—or at least the point where he hit rock-bottom, allowing him to turn things around.
Graham imagines that Trump could salvage his presidency by returning to what he espoused during the campaign:
... Looking forward, post-health-care tension threatens to drive a wedge between Trump and Paul Ryan’s agenda, which is in many ways anathema to the Trump coalition.

Start with the bill in question. Trump had promised during the campaign to repeal and replace Obamacare “immediately” with something that would avoid mandates but maintain popular provisions that prohibit discrimination for preexisting conditions and allow people to stay on their parents’ insurance plans until 26. He also planned to make coverage available to anyone who wanted it, and to not touch Medicare and Medicaid.

... Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan ... were always an odd pair; they disagreed on a range of fundamental issues, especially entitlements (Ryan wants to cut them; Trump promised to preserve them)....

... a split with the speaker might be the best thing that could happen to Trump in political terms, freeing him up to pursue the deficit-bloating spending agenda he laid out during the campaign, rather than the far more austere and fiscally conservative one that Ryan desires.
Graham, to his credit, doesn't believe Trump actually will move left.
If the past is precedent, Trump won’t do that. The AHCA debacle showed that Trump has little handle on the way Capitol Hill works, and minimal interest in learning. As a general rule, he lacks discipline. Moving to take advantage of the moment would also require a unified, concerted effort from a White House that has shown little ability to act in that way....
But just describing this as an opportunity for Trump to return to the agenda he laid out in his campaign (better benefits, lots of infrastructure projects) misses the point.

Trump's agenda was never anything more than sucker's bait. As a businessman or a politician, Trump doesn't promise what he'd really like to deliver -- he promises whatever will reel in the marks. Whatever Trump said during the campaign about Obamacare or Medicare or Medicaid or infrastructure should be taken as seriously as we take Trump University promotional material. As Trump frenemy Mark Cuban said:
“He’s like that guy who walks into the bar, and will say whatever it’ll take to get laid. Only in this case he’s not trying to fuck some girl. He’s trying to fuck the country.”
You can ask why Trump doesn't just bust the budget and actually try to give people what he promised -- after all, it's the government's money, not his. But I think he's so used to shortchanging his buyers (selling them a lousy "university," selling them tasteless steaks) that he can't even imagine delivering on his promises anymore. He's already closed the sale -- he can go hold a "campaign" rally anytime he wants and bask in the adulation of a large crowd of deplorables. But more important, he's in this not for the public, but for himself and for the members of his economic class -- making sure that Trump, his family, and his friends get paid is Job #1. And as for the politics of it all, his gang is the right, or at least some portion of it, while his enemies are mostly the left. He learned that from Fox News -- it got him to the White House. So no, don't hold your breath waiting for him to reach out to ordinary people.


The Donald Trump administration didn't come into office holding out an olive branch to Chuck Schumer and the rest of the Democratic Party, and The Washington Post's Fred Hiatt finds that baffling:
For weeks there has been [an] obvious question for Stephen K. Bannon and President Trump: Why are they driving Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer into the arms of the implacable opposition?

... Trump’s behavior from Inauguration Day on left Schumer no choice. More important, what’s bad for Democrats isn’t necessarily optimal for Trump — especially if his and Bannon’s goal was to blow up both parties and forge a new working-class, nationalist majority that can carry Trump to triumphant reelection in 2020.

... if Trump had begun his administration by seeking a bipartisan infrastructure bill, Schumer would have had no choice but to cooperate, and might well have welcomed the chance.
Hiatt just can't figure it out:
... Why didn’t Trump start with infrastructure and cooperation?

One possibility is that he didn’t because he couldn’t, temperamentally. He couldn’t control his jeers and insults, and Bannon couldn’t control them either, so before the administration could even choose its first priority, the decision was essentially made for it: Democrats had been alienated and Trump had to start with initiatives that he thought could pass with only Republican support....

Another possibility is that the more conventional Republicans inside the administration — Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Pence — argued for more conventional Republican goals and won.
Or maybe the notion that Trump and Bannon ever really wanted to "blow up both parties and forge a new working-class, nationalist majority" is completely specious.

If you really believe that Bannon is some sort of closet centrist, consider this Politico story about tensions between the Trump Treasury Department and the Bannon wing in the White House:
Conservatives inside and outside Treasury say the new secretary, former Goldman Sachs banker, movie producer and Democratic donor Steven Mnuchin, is assembling a team that is too liberal and too detached from the core of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” platform of ripping up trade deals, gutting the Dodd-Frank banking rules and generally rejecting “globalism” in all its forms.

On one side is a less ideological faction, mostly aligned with Mnuchin, that includes National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell — three former Goldman executives — alongside first daughter Ivanka Trump and to some degree her husband, Jared Kushner. All are seen as having a more favorable view of international trade deals and existing relationships with foreign counterparts and a more measured approach to revamping financial regulations On the other side are more populist and nationalist forces, led by senior adviser Steve Bannon and top policy adviser Stephen Miller.

Already, critics note that Mnuchin has selected another Democratic donor, Craig Phillips, for a top position within the department. He told senators at his confirmation hearing that he supports parts of the controversial Volcker Rule, which prohibits banks from making some bets with their own money — an anathema to conservatives who want to scrap stricter banking laws....

“For conservatives, Mnuchin is a missed opportunity because he is not conservative. He will not drive the kind of tax reform we want, nor will he be strong on fixing Dodd-Frank,” [a Republican] donor [said].
Did you follow that? It's true that Bannon's views on trade are neither liberal nor mainstream conservative -- but on changing the tax code, eliminating the Volcker Rule, overturning Dodd-Frank, and generally "revamping" (i.e., gutting) financial regulations, the supposedly "populist" Bannon is to the right of Trump's Goldman Sachs contingent. On these subjects, they're seen as liberals. Bannon doesn't just disagree with them, he disagrees with them in a mainstream conservative way -- i.e., a Paul Ryan/Koch brothers way.

So Maybe Bannon doesn't really give a crap about infrastructure, especially infrastructure paid for in a way Chuck Schumer might endorse. Maybe Bannon just talked about that because he assumed it was a stick to beat Democrats with. And when he found out that Republicans in Congress were lukewarm to the idea, he agreed to the (probably permanent) postponement of the infrastructure bill without complaining, without urging Breitbart to embarrass congressional leaders on the subject, and without trying to harm the leadership with leaks to the rest of the media.

Hiatt speculates that Trump didn't do outreach to Democrats because Reince Priebus and Mike Pence "argued for more conventional Republican goals and won." Well, maybe Bannon did that too. And maybe Trump responded to that because he's been a Fox News junkie for years and years.

Bannon's alleged post-partisanship is utterly phony. He's a "populist" because he's a racist, and because he believes "champion of the working stiff" is a good market niche for him (and for Trump). But all of Trump's top advisers are ultimately Republicans. Unless they believed they could negotiate the terms of a Democratic surrender, they were never going to do inter-party outreach.


Wake up and smell the working-class blue-collar heartland populism:
President Trump plans to unveil a new White House office on Monday with sweeping authority to overhaul the federal bureaucracy and fulfill key campaign promises ... by harvesting ideas from the business world and, potentially, privatizing some government functions.

The White House Office of American Innovation, to be led by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, will operate as its own nimble power center within the West Wing and will report directly to Trump. Viewed internally as a SWAT team of strategic consultants, the office will be staffed by former business executives....

The innovation office has a particular focus on technology and data, and it is working with such titans as Apple chief executive Tim Cook, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff and Tesla founder and chief executive Elon Musk. The group has already hosted sessions with more than 100 such leaders and government officials.

... Benioff [said], “I’m hopeful that Jared will be collaborative with our industry in moving this forward. When I talk to him, he does remind me of a lot of the young, scrappy entrepreneurs that I invest in in their 30s.”
Strategic consultants! Silicon Valley ties! Jared Kushner as "scrappy entrepreneur" who'd be worthy of venture capital! I can feel the dirt under my fingernails already. Donald Trump really is a blue-collar billionaire!

Seriously, folks -- if an announcement like this had been made by President Hillary Clinton, even if it didn't involve her daughter or her daughter's husband, can you imagine the contempt with which it would have been met, especially by liberals who chide the Democratic Party for abandoning the heartland? It would have been said that after a populist election, in which the two candidates who energized voters were Trump and Bernie Sanders, the president was turning to technocrats to solve America's problems. Waving their well-thumbed copies of Hillbilly Elegy, the pundits would have said that President Clinton had completely misunderstood the message voters were sending in 2016 -- they'd say she was turning to the same bubble-dwelling coastal elitist meritocrats who'd gotten us into this mess and driven the white working class to a state of despair and widespread drug addiction. They'd say that especially if her office was doing this:
The office will also focus on combating opioid abuse, a regular emphasis for Trump on the campaign trail.
But we won't hear many pundits say that America needs hope for the less well off, not "disruption" of government functioning. Maybe a few will say that a pampered scion who vacations in Aspen might not be the best choice to deal with the opioid problem in white working-class communities. (We're also told that Kushner will be working with "an official drug commission devoted to the problem that will be chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie," even though the two hate each other. Yeah, that should end well.)

The rest of the team really seems rooted to the soil:
Kushner proudly notes that most of the members of his team have little-to-no political experience, hailing instead from the world of business. They include Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council; Chris Liddell, assistant to the president for strategic initiatives; Reed Cordish, assistant to the president for intergovernmental and technology initiatives; Dina Powell, senior counselor to the president for economic initiatives and deputy national security adviser; and Andrew Bremberg, director of the Domestic Policy Council.

Ivanka Trump ... will collaborate with the innovation office on issues such as workforce development but will not have an official role, aides said.

Powell, a former Goldman Sachs executive who spent a decade at the firm managing public-private job creation programs, also boasts a government pedigree as a veteran of George W. Bush’s White House and State Department. Bremberg also worked in the Bush administration. But others are political neophytes.

Liddell, who speaks with an accent from his native New Zealand, served as chief financial officer for General Motors, Microsoft and International Paper, as well as in Hollywood for William Morris Endeavor.

... Like Kushner, Cordish is the scion of a real estate family — a Baltimore-based conglomerate known for developing casinos and shopping malls. And Cohn, a Democrat who has recently amassed significant clout in the White House, is the hard-charging former president of Goldman Sachs.
Wake me when the populism starts.

Sunday, March 26, 2017


The New York Post's Salena Zito says that Donald Trump's low approval ratings don't matter. Why?
Because in American politics, geography is everything.

Live in an urban, minority or college setting, and Donald J. Trump is underwater in the polls in a big way; he gets a frosty 29 percent approval rating in the cities, 35 percent approval in the urban suburbs, in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal survey.

But, live in the second ring of suburbs outside the cities, or the exurbs or the third and fourth rings that comprise rural America, and the president gets a 53 percent to 59 percent job approval rating in the same poll.
In a country where you can lose the popular vote by nearly three million and still be deemed the election winner, she has a point, regrettably -- but when she tries to hammer that point home, her assertions begin to be contradicted by simple grade-school math. She writes about a Pennsylvania voter named Don Brick:
In addition to cultural attitudes, Brick also represents the issue of geography. He is from one of the Democratic counties in Pennsylvania — Westmoreland — that went big for Trump.
Did Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, go big for Trump? Yes -- by a margin of approximately 50,000 votes out of 175,000 cast.

But is it reasonable to call Westmoreland a "Democratic county"? The fact is, as you'll see if you check the county-by-county Pennsylvania results at U.S. Election Atlas, Westmoreland County hasn't chosen a Democrat for president since 1996. And even then it was a squeaker, with Bill Clinton getting 44% of the vote and Bob Dole getting 43%. (Ross Perot got 11%.)

When I pointed this out on Twitter, Zito responded:

She's technically correct -- Westmoreland County has approximately 245,000 registered voters, and Democrats have a whopping 8,000-voter advantage over Republicans. But it's not even a majority: There are 28,000 voters with other registrations.

And this is moot if the county hasn't voted Democratic in a generation. It reminds me of a lot of Southern locales where conservative white voters retain Democratic registration even though it's been decades since they actually voted for a Democrat.

Zito goes on to write:
If you’re looking toward the midterms in 2018 and hoping Trump will be a drag on a House congressional seat, it’s more important to know how folks see the president in northeast Ohio or Scranton, Pa., than in Boston or Baltimore or Philadelphia.

Why? Because here in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, there was a 21-point shift in support from Barack Obama toward Trump in the 13th Congressional District held by Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan. Ryan didn’t lose, but a once-solid Democratic seat is now vulnerable in the 2018 midterms.
Tim Ryan "didn't lose"? He sure didn't -- he won in 2016 by a 68%-32% margin. That means he's "vulnerable"?

In Zito-land, I guess it does.


It certainly looks as if President Trump wants Paul Ryan humiliated -- or does it?

Here's a story that's getting a lot of attention right now:
President Donald Trump tweeted a message on Saturday encouraging his followers to watch Judge Jeanine Pirro's show, who opened her show immediately demanding that House Speaker Paul Ryan resign.

The Fox News host kicked off her show, Justice With Judge Jeanine, with her "Opening Statement" segment, which called for Ryan to step down after the GOP's health care bill failed to gain enough votes to continue.

"Paul Ryan needs to step down as speaker of the House," said Pirro, beginning her show. "The reason? He failed to deliver the votes on his health care bill, the one trumpeted to repeal and replace Obamacare. The one that he had seven years to work on. The one he hid under lock and key in the basement of Congress. The one that had to be pulled to prevent the embarrassment of not having enough votes to pass."

"But this bill didn't just fail," she continued. "It failed when Republicans had the House, the Senate, the White House."
Here's the tweet that preceded that by about ten hours:

But if Trump wants to bring Ryan down, why is The New York Times reporting this?
In his private conversations, the president has remained supportive of Mr. Ryan, declining to join in his advisers’ frustrations over how the bill was handled in the House. One adviser described him as still “smitten” with Mr. Ryan.

“I want to thank Paul Ryan. He worked very, very hard,” Mr. Trump said on Friday. “I will tell you that. He worked very, very hard.”

Mr. Trump’s praise for Mr. Ryan seemed to owe, at least in part, to the fact that the speaker had repeatedly kept him informed throughout the negotiations. Mr. Ryan was also exceedingly deferential to the president, casting him for days as the consummate closer and a winner of the highest order. “The president gave his all in this effort,” he said on Friday. “He’s really been fantastic.”
So does the Times have it wrong? Is Trump pretending to be "smitten" by Ryan while not-so-secretly trying to stab him in the back?

I have my doubts about that tweet. It's long been known that Trump doesn't write (or dictate) all of his own tweets. It's possible to determine whether a Trump tweet came from an iPhone or an Android phone by looking at it in Tweetdeck, and it's widely believed that Trump's more inflammatory tweets have been posted on an Android device, while staffers have written the more staid tweets on an iPhone.

But The Guardian noted earlier this month that very Trumpy tweets are now being posted from an iPhone -- at the time of the Guardian story, Trump hadn't used an Android in eleven days, for any kind of tweet. (There'd been pressure on Trump to give up his Android phone, a very insecure Samsung Galaxy S3.)

Well, the Pirro tweet is from an Android device.

But it's true that Trump is using an iPhone for very Trumpy tweets:

So maybe some of the tweets Trump doesn't write are now being sent via Android. Trump aides know that we know the old pattern. Maybe they're trying to mix it up.

That Pirro tweet sure doesn't look like a Trump original. It has no anger. It has no exclamation points. The airtime of the show is carefully rendered as "9:00 P.M." -- the way you'd write it if, unlike Trump, you were used to having your copy read and marked up by professional copy editors.

Trump didn't write that.

It's possible that he' turning against Ryan -- as the Times story notes, " Mr. Trump is also known to grow angrier over time, particularly if faced with public embarrassment."

But I believe Trump has been "smitten" with Ryan. Think about how self-conscious Trump seems to be with regard to his utter lack of policy knowledge. Now think about Ryan's M.O. as a congressman: He's the Great Explainer, the guy who comes to you and says, with a bashful chuckle, "Yeah, this stuff is really complicated, but heck, I'm a nutty policy wonk, so if you have any questions, just ask me." That's the message that bamboozles so many Beltway journalists -- why wouldn't it bamboozle Trump? It would be reassuring -- don't worry if you don't understand it, because it's really only nerds like me who can understand all these crazy details.

The Times story says that Ryan has flattered Trump (“He’s really been fantastic”). And it goes on to tell us that Ryan knows how to echo Trump, a skill mastered by generations of ambitious corporate strivers before him:
On Friday, Mr. Ryan was quick to adopt Mr. Trump’s favored rationale during the health fight, arguing that Republicans had been doing Democrats a grand favor by dismantling President Barack Obama’s health law in the first place and that Democrats would eventually suffer the consequences.

“I’m sure they may be pleased right now,” Mr. Ryan said, but when they see “how bad” things get, “I don’t think they’re going to like that, either.”
So my conclusion is that Trump still likes Ryan -- and somebody else wrote that tweet.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


This morning I've been reading a lot of inside-baseball stories about the failure of the Trump/Ryancare bill. One message that's repeated in many of the stories is that the events of the past few weeks were like an anecdote from Donald Trump's book The Art of the Deal, except that this didn't have a happy ending for Trump, because things in Washington are, in some vague way, different, or Trump's commitment to victory was different, or some combination of the two.

But it seems to me that Trump's biggest problem, apart from his staggering ignorance of the bill's nuances and health care in general, is that for all the respect he gets as a dealmaker, he has no go-to move when he can't bedazzle you or scare you. Here he is failing to dazzle:
One [moderate Republican], Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), attended meetings at the White House and praised Trump’s style, saying the president clearly “knows Jersey.” But, he added, the bill would harm his constituents who rely on Medicaid and there was nothing Trump could say to persuade him otherwise.

“He’s got this wit about him that I enjoy,” Lance said, “but I’m a ‘no’ vote.”
And then there were members of the Freedom Caucus, particularly Mark Meadows, whom Trump tried and failed to intimidate:
Freedom Caucus members were eager to hear from Trump on Tuesday when he arrived at the Capitol. But when he rose to address the GOP conference, the president made it clear there would be no further modifications, and said he expected Republicans to rally around Ryan's bill.

Then Trump made a mistake. After singling out Meadows and asking him to stand up in front of his colleagues, Trump joked that he might "come after" the Freedom Caucus boss if he didn't vote yes, and then added, with a more serious tone: "I think Mark Meadows will get on board."

It was a crucial misreading of Meadows, who has been determined to please both the White House and his conservatives colleagues on the Hill. Upon assuming the chairmanship of the Freedom Caucus earlier this year, Meadows was viewed suspiciously by some of his members who worried that the North Carolina congressman is too cozy with Trump and would hesitate to defy him. Meadows campaigned extensively with Trump last fall and struck up a relationship with White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who communicates with him almost daily by text. Meadows knew the health care fight would be viewed as a test of his independence from Trump, and the moment the president called him out, he was boxed in.

"That was the biggest mistake the president could have made," one Freedom Caucus member told me. "Mark desperately wanted to get to yes, and Trump made it impossible for him. If he flipped after that he would look incredibly weak."
If you feel you're answerable to someone other than Trump, Trump has no idea how to win you over. The moderates are more afraid of swing voters in their districts than they are of Trump campaigning against them or recruiting primary challengers for them. The Freedom Caucusers don't want to alienate their purist fellow members, and they know that a lot of their voters assess legislation based on what they glean from talk radio, purist websites and pundits, and far-right groups like the Heritage Foundation. They're more afraid of crossing those folks than they are of crossing Trump.

Some reporters will tell you that Trump was really good at this sort of thing when he was in real estate, but this is different:
[The] president [was] in a constant state of negotiation. He remarked to friends and aides that it did not feel much different from his real estate transactions.

“It’s the same thing,” he said Wednesday in the Oval Office. “Really, it is.”

Yet the man accustomed to acting unilaterally as a Manhattan developer faced a series of new and uncomfortable challenges.
But in his real estate years he sometimes had the same problems: If he hadn't charmed you, couldn't intimidate you, and wasn't the person you felt you were answerable to, you could scuttle his deals.
Through Trump’s rise, fall and rebirth, there was one major real estate project that he tried to keep.... It was a deal of genuine magnitude and would have put him atop the New York real estate market. And he screwed it up.

The deal involved Manhattan’s West Side Yards, a sprawling, 77-acre tract abutting the Hudson River between 59th and 72nd Streets and at the time the largest privately owned undeveloped stretch of land in New York City....

Trump’s plans for the property included office and residential space; a new broadcasting headquarters for NBC; a rocket-ship-shaped skyscraper that would have been the world’s tallest building and cast shadows across the Hudson River into New Jersey; and a $700 million property tax abatement from the city as an incentive to build it. The $4.5 billion project -- which Trump called Television City -- would have been New York’s biggest development since Rockefeller Center....

With the property, financing and plans in place, a large part of what Trump needed to do to make Television City a reality was to bring together different stakeholders: locals (like the late actor Paul Newman) who wanted parks and a less imposing development, and a mayor, Ed Koch, who had his own outsize personality and who was trying to balance the city’s redevelopment with the needs of the area’s longtime residents.

Had Trump appeased these interests, he might have made the project a reality. Instead, the author of “The Art of the Deal” quickly became entangled in an epic, only-in-New-York round of public fisticuffs with Koch in the spring and summer of 1987. The brawl devolved into name-calling -- and ultimately helped doom a deal that could have had vastly different results if Trump chose different tactics.

After learning that Koch was going to turn down his request for the $700 million abatement for Television City, Trump dashed off a letter to the mayor.

“For you to be playing ‘Russian Roulette’ with perhaps the most important corporation in New York over the relatively small amounts of money involved because you and your staff are afraid that Donald Trump may actually make more than a dollar of profit, is both ludicrous and disgraceful,” he wrote to Koch.

Koch wrote back to Trump, warning him to “refrain from further attempts to influence the process through intimidation.” Koch then held a press conference, during which he released the letters and said he wasn’t going to give Trump the abatement.

Trump doubled down, holding his own press conference and calling on Koch to resign. The battle played out in a carnivalesque stream on TV and on the front pages and gossip columns of newspapers.

Koch said Trump was “squealing like a stuck pig.” Trump said Koch’s New York had become a “cesspool of corruption and incompetence.” Koch said Trump was a “piggy, piggy, piggy.”

Trump said the mayor had “no talent and only moderate intelligence” and should be impeached. “Ed Koch would do everybody a huge favor if he would get out of office and they started all over again,” he noted. “It’s bedlam in the city.”

Things quieted down for a little while, and then Koch announced that he would zone the Yards for a project about half the size of what Trump wanted for Television City. Koch also gave NBC tax breaks that persuaded it to stay put in Rockefeller Center.

Trump promised that he would eventually build Television City “with or without the current administration” in City Hall. But he never did.
Koch was a man with an ego and a gift for self-promotion equal to Trump's. He wasn't charmed by Trump or intimidated by him. Koch was willing to cut deals, but only up to a point. As The New York Times reported at the time, Koch
said he could not offer Mr. Trump a deal that was so generous that it would have antagonized all the other corporations that have remained in the city. And, the Mayor added, he could not empty the public treasury just to assuage the network and the developer.
So NBC got a tax break to stay in the city, and Trump was left to stew.

The legend notwithstanding, Trump as a developer didn't always win -- far from it. You could beat him then if you cared about your interests more than his. And you can beat him now the same way.

Friday, March 24, 2017


We had a big win today, but Joan Walsh expresses a fear that a lot of people share:
It’s unlikely the GOP will return to health-care-reform legislation this year. (“It’s enough already,” Trump told a reporter Friday afternoon.) That doesn’t mean the fight over Obamacare will wind down, necessarily, but that it will move into the shadows. The Republican plan now, Trump told reporters, is to wait for Obamacare to “explode.” Similarly, Ryan predicted, “The worst is yet to come with Obamacare.” In all likelihood, what that means is that the GOP will now occupy itself with sabotaging the law. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, an ardent Obamacare critic, is perfectly positioned to do just that, via small regulatory actions that will attract considerably less attention than a legislative battle. The administration has already begun that work—for instance, by canceling millions of dollar’s worth of prepaid television advertisements for the Obamacare enrollment period.
Sabotage as Plan B? That's plausible -- but what would Republicans do then? They'd be putting themselves in the same position they were in when they decided to repeal and replace Obamacare as their first order of business this year: They'd have to concoct a plan that could get through both houses of Congress, and that wouldn't be universally hated.

They couldn't do it this year, even with seven years to ruminate. They're not going to be able to do it in the future. Jonathan Chait states the problem flatly:
It is not possible to write a bill that meets public standards for acceptable health-insurance coverage within the parameters of conservative ideology.
This doesn't mean that the sabotage of Obamacare won't take place. But if it does, it means that Republicans will be the dog the caught the car, got run over by it, recovered, and decided to chase it again, with no more idea of what to do once they caught it than they had in the first place.


Gabriel Sherman of New York magazine says that the big winner in the health care trainwreck may be Steve Bannon:
The failure to repeal and replace Obamacare would be a stinging defeat for Trump. But it would be an even bigger defeat for Paul Ryan, who has all but staked his Speakership on passing this bill. And in the hall of mirrors that is Washington, the big winner to emerge out of the health-care debacle could be Steve Bannon. That’s because Bannon has been waging war against Ryan for years. For Bannon, Ryan is the embodiment of the “globalist-corporatist” Republican elite. A failed bill would be Bannon’s best chance yet to topple Ryan and advance his nationalist-populist economic agenda.

... According to a source close to the White House, Bannon said that he’s unhappy with the Ryan bill because it “doesn’t drive down costs” and was “written by the insurance industry.” While the bill strips away many of Obamacare’s provisions, it does not go as far as Bannon would wish to “deconstruct the administrative state” in the realm of health care....

Whether or not the bill passes, Ryan has been weakened, the pro-Breitbart Freedom Caucus has been emboldened. It’s hard to see how the Republican health-care civil war hasn’t been a boon for Bannon.
So Bannon might get what he wants as a right-wing bomb-thrower and gadfly: the downfall of Paul Ryan. But what is Bannon getting as a top government aide to the president of the United States -- someone whose job is presumably crafting policy and laws?

Ross Douthat, of all people, makes some good points:

We all know that the president is stupid, incurious, and unwilling to bone up on policy. I think most of us have been thinking that Bannon, by contrast, is stupid -- evil, yes, but not stupid. We've been assuming he reads (although his reading includes books that are staggeringly racist and melodramatically apocalyptic). We've assumed he has policy ideas, even if they're awful. But what are his ideas -- apart from the idea that America's greatness is inversely proportional to its median melanin level?

Where is the populist/nationalist health care plan? Will there be a populist/nationalist plan on taxes, or will that be outsourced to Ryan and the GOP leadership as well? (So far, it seems as if that's what's happened.)

And if Bannon is really the guy behind the legendary (and now vaporware-y) infrastructure plan, why is the White House alienating every Democrat and creating an environment in which power might shift to the Freedom Caucus, which will almost certainly see infrastructure as wasteful, budget-busting government spending?

Bannon is clearly less stupid than his boss. But he seems to have few detailed policy ideas and he seems to know nothing about how you build coalitions in Washington. And why would he? He built a career at Breitbart on pure rage and resentment, which is something you can do when you're an outsider shaking your fist at the people in power. But that's not good preparation for being in power.

If he chose to, Bannon could be a European-style nationalist/populist, with a program that combines racism with government social programs for the Volk. But ultimately he's a standard-issue Republican whose hatred of liberalism is rarely if ever superseded by the paleoconservative populism he's glommed onto as an excuse for his deep-seated racism.

And he knows nothing about government. So when it comes to running the country, the two most powerful people have no idea what the hell they're doing.


The GOP health care bill will be voted on today, and failure is quite possible. Team Trump is throwing Paul Ryan under the bus:
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.

... on Thursday night, Mr. Trump delivered an ultimatum.

He dispatched his budget adviser, Mick Mulvaney, to a conference of House Republicans and told them they had to vote on Friday. And if the bill fails, he said, Mr. Trump will move on.
Failure would do a lot of political harm to congressional Republicans. It would also hurt Trump -- wouldn't it?

Maybe not, at least with his base. A new poll suggests that the base responds to bad news, or at least certain kinds of bad news, by liking Trump more.
Some of President Trump's supporters expressed a more favorable view of him following a number of recent controversies surrounding his administration, according to an online poll released Thursday.

In a handful of cases, while most registered voters expressed a negative view of Trump after the controversies, a plurality of Trump voters felt more favorably toward him, according to the Politico/Morning Consult poll....

Trump's tweet accusing media of being "the enemy of the American people" and his baseless claim on Twitter early this month that former President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower were two controversies his supporters liked most, according to the poll.

His net favorability among supporters increased 31 points following his media attack, while it fell 15 points among registered voters in general.

Similarly, Trump saw a 21-point boost in favorability among supporters over his wiretapping claim, though his favorability among registered voters overall fell 20 points.
If Trump responds to a defeat by lashing out at Paul Ryan for the nature of the bill or the strategy of dealing with health care first, or if he claims that the media's coverage of the bill was bad, or if he attacks the holdouts, he might actually please his voters.

Trump voters don't really seem to care if he governs well, as long as he's perpetually at war with people they hate. And on some level Trump himself doesn't seem to care what his overall approval rating is, as long as his admirers admire him a lot. He basks in that intense adulation.

Here are the numbers from that poll:

Trump seems not to care about the red, just the green. So if this bill fails, I think he'll go for another big green moment soon -- either by attacking an enemy on health care (probably Ryan or the media, who are hated targets) or by changing the subject from health care altogether and attacking someone unrelated.

He'll have failed in his first attempt and getting a big bill passed, he'll have endangered his own party's congressional delegation by demanding a vote on an unpopular bill -- but he'll find a way to get what he wants, which is the undying worship of his most fervent backers. He'll take care of #1.

Thursday, March 23, 2017


As Axios's Jonathan Swan reports, Donald Trump is very bad at his job:
House leadership has been hoping that President Trump would turn the screws on the Freedom Caucus. They'd love nothing more than for Trump to threaten Freedom Caucus members like Mark Meadows with primary challenges. In fact, they were banking on Trump doing that. They thought he could break the Freedom Caucus.

The emerging reality: Trump is doing nothing of the sort. He was joking when he told Meadows in the GOP conference meeting earlier this week that he'd come after him. And in today's White House meeting Trump did not brow-beat the Freedom Caucus members or make a hard sell on a "final offer."

According to three sources in the room for the meeting, Trump didn't demand loyalty tests, and there was lots of laughing, jokes, and stories.
Here's the photo that accompanies this:

I'm sure few in the GOP expected Trump to be a policy wonk, especially on health care, but they thought he would be a barracuda in the conference room. Instead, it appears that he's thinking, Look at me. I'm the president! All these people I've seen on Fox want to talk to me about important matters like health care! He's not a dealmaker -- he's starstruck. He can't believe he is where he is. He just wants to rub elbows with all the D.C. celebrities.

Trump is still very good at protecting his own ass. He's be a ruthless SOB when the task at hand is to take care of #1. This? He's not so good at it..


I understand why Time magazine would want to do a cover story on Donald Trump's relationship to the truth. But the decision to build the story around an interview with Trump by reporter Michael Scherer was a mistake, because it gives Trump a chance to relitigate many of his most outrageous lies, to the near-certain delight of Republican voters.

Trump knows the subject of the upcoming story, so he's ready for Scherer:
SCHERER: Do you want me to give you a quick overview [of the story]?

TRUMP: Yeah, it’s a cool story. I mean it’s, the concept is right. I predicted a lot of things, Michael. Some things that came to you a little bit later. But, you know, we just rolled out a list. Sweden. I make the statement, everyone goes crazy. The next day they have a massive riot, and death, and problems. Huma [Abedin] and Anthony [Weiner], you know, what I tweeted about that whole deal, and then it turned out he had it, all of Hillary’s email on his thing. NATO, obsolete, because it doesn’t cover terrorism. They fixed that, and I said that the allies must pay. Nobody knew that they weren’t paying. I did. I figured it. Brexit, I was totally right about that. You were over there I think, when I predicted that, right, the day before. Brussels, I said, Brussels is not Brussels. I mean many other things, the election’s rigged against Bernie Sanders. We have a lot of things.
This is a classic Gish Gallop.
The Gish Gallop ... is the fallacious debate tactic of drowning your opponent in a flood of individually-weak arguments in order to prevent rebuttal of the whole argument collection without great effort. The Gish Gallop is a belt-fed version of the on the spot fallacy, as it's unreasonable for anyone to have a well-composed answer immediately available to every argument present in the Gallop.
When he starts with this, Trump clearly throws Scherer off stride. Scherer never recovers -- or maybe it's just that he's so afraid of losing access that he's too polite to challenge Trump seriously. In any case, Trump also knows how to filibuster, which leaves Scherer stammering:
Did you see the Wall Street Journal opinion page today, the editorial page?

I thought it was, I thought it was a disgrace that they could write that.

But let me just, the hypothetical they started with, you have to announce to the country or to the world that some serious national security event has happened, and…

The country believes me. Hey. I went to Kentucky two nights ago, we had 25,000 people in a massive basketball arena. There wasn’t a seat, they had to send away people. I went to Tennessee four nights ago. We had a packed house, they had to send away thousands of people. You saw that, right. Did you see that?

Yes I did.

The country’s not buying it, it is fake media. And the Wall Street Journal is a part of it.

Ok. So you don’t worry that your credibility, that if you’ve cited things that later turn out to be wrong, based on anonymous sources that that hurts you.

Name what’s wrong! I mean, honestly.

Fox News said…

Brexit. Wait a minute. I predicted Brexit. What I said about NATO was true, people aren’t paying their bills. And everyone said it was a horrible thing to say. And then they found out. And when Germany was over here I said, we are going to have a great relationship with Germany but you have to pay your NATO bills, and they don’t even dispute it, ok. So what have I said that is wrong? Everyone, I got attacked on NATO and now they are all saying I was right. I got attacked on Brexit, when I was saying, I said long before the day before, I said the day before the opening, but I was saying Brexit was going to pass, and everybody was laughing, and I turned out to be right on that. I took a lot of heat when I said Brexit was going to pass. Don’t forget, Obama said that U.K. will go to the back of the line, and I talked about Sweden, and may have been somewhat different, but the following day, two days later, they had a massive riot in Sweden, exactly what I was talking about, I was right about that.
Scherer gives it his best shot when he asks Trump about his wiretap tweets, but Trump counters with repeated references to Devin Nunes:
But there’s other things you said that haven’t panned out. The peg for this story is the wiretapping hearing on Monday, in which [FBI Director James] Comey and [NSA Director Mike] Rogers testified about your tweets there.

Yeah well if you’d look at, in fact I’ll give you the front page story, and just today I heard, just a little while ago, that Devin Nunes had a news conference, did you hear about this, where they have a lot of information on tapping. Did you hear about that?

I have not, no.

Now remember this. When I said wiretapping, it was in quotes. Because a wiretapping is, you know today it is different than wire tapping. It is just a good description. But wiretapping was in quotes. What I’m talking about is surveillance. And today, [House Intelligence Committee Chairman] Devin Nunes just had a news conference. Now probably got obliterated by what’s happened in London. But just had a news conference, and here it is one of those things....

So you don’t feel like Comey’s testimony in any way takes away from the credibility of the tweets you put out, even with the quotes?

No, I have, look. I have articles saying it happened. But you have to take a look at what they, they just went out at a news conference. Devin Nunes had a news conference....
I half-wonder whether Nunes was deployed yesterday specifically to give Trump cover for this interview. Trump's old-school. I'm sure he takes the idea of a Time magazine cover story very, very seriously.

(And we know from a February Washington Post story that the White House specifically asked Nunes to go to the media and spout the Trump party line. Nunes was, of course, a member of the Trump transition team.)

Look, if you're left-leaning, your social media feeds are full of pieces saying "Here are all the screwy things Trump said in that Time interview." But for nearly all Republicans and for many people in the middle, the interview was Trump's opportunity to insist that the press is evil and he's always vindicated. I know it would have been a journalistic heresy not to interview him for this story, but I think Scherer shouldn't have done it. We've heard all we need to hear from Trump. Scherer gave him yet another chance to drive the discussion, and he took full advantage.

As for the cover story itself, Scherer's description in the interview is accurate:
But my idea is that whatever the reality of what you are describing, the fact that they are disputed makes them a more effective message, that you are able to spread the message further, that more people get excited about it, that it gets on TV.
Translation: not Trump is a congenital liar but I am in awe of how effectively Trump uses lies.

From the cover story:
Trump has in this way brought to the Oval Office an entirely different set of assumptions about the proper behavior of a public official, and introduced to the country entirely new rules for public debate....

Through it all, he has presented himself as the last honest man, and among his fervent supporters, he hits notes that harmonize with the facts of their lives as they deeply feel them.... Despite the luxury and ease of his own life, he seems genuine in his belief that the system is rigged, and that life is a zero-sum game: no one wins without someone else losing. Reality, for the reality-show mogul, is something to be invented episode by episode....

Trump's alternative reality is dark, divisive and pessimistic, and it tends to position him and his supporters as heroic victims of injustice. Despite this--or maybe because of it--his reckless assertions are weapons that often work. He commandeers the traditional news cycle and makes visceral connections with voters. By taking on Obama over his birth certificate, Trump charmed a right-wing constituency and ratcheted himself to the level of White House--ready. By scorning good manners to attack border crossers and Muslims, Trump showed solidarity with the politically incorrect and advertised his iconoclasm. By flouting fact-checkers and making journalists his enemy, he is driving home the theme that his turbulent presidency is a struggle to the death with a despised Washington elite.
Building on the work of decades of Republican demagogues, Trump has completed the task of making civil discourse in America impossible. But please stop describing that as if it's in any way admirable.


Negotiators are working frantically to win House passage of the GOP's health care bill. They're doing so mostly by offering to make the bill more punitive:
Conservatives are using their considerable leverage on the measure ... to extract concessions on the Essential Health Benefits section of the bill, which mandates that insurers offer plans covering 10 services: outpatient care, emergency room visits, hospitalization, maternity and newborn care, mental health and addiction treatment, prescription drugs, rehabilitative services, lab services, preventive care and pediatric services.
But apparently it's not punitive enough:
Though the move represented a win for conservatives, many Freedom Caucus members refused to commit their support for the bill. They want to cut even more Obamacare regulations, including its popular provision requiring insurers to offer coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.
And every change that makes the bill more appealing to conservatives makes it less appealing to Republican moderates:
... a last-ditch bid by the White House to win conservative support late Wednesday appeared to repel moderates.

Moderate Republicans huddled with Speaker Paul Ryan and House leaders for nearly two hours Wednesday night but emerged without consensus. Immediately after exiting the meeting, Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), leader of the House’s moderate Tuesday Group, panned the bill, known as the American Health Care Act.

“After careful deliberation, I cannot support the bill and will oppose it,” Dent said in a statement upon leaving the meeting. “I believe this bill, in its current form, will lead to the loss of coverage and make insurance unaffordable for too many Americans, particularly for low-to-moderate income and older individuals.”
How nasty is the bill now?
The worst provision in the manager’s amendment is a Medicaid work requirement that would allow states to revoke Medicaid coverage from new mothers who haven’t found a job within two months after giving birth.
And if the bill is made mean-spirited enough to get through the House, it's likely to be far too harsh to win approval in the Senate, where Republicans can afford only two defections:
The Senate is different.... Four GOP senators — Rob Portman of Ohio, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Cory Gardner of Colorado, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have written to McConnell to express concern about sharp rollbacks to Medicaid. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Susan Collins of Maine, meanwhile, have actually gone and written their own replacement bill, one that would likely lead to much smaller coverage losses....

If you look at the Center for American Progress’ handy district-by-district breakdown of coverage loss under AHCA ... [and] you look up the most vulnerable House Republicans — generally suburban districts whose white population is very well-educated that swung away from the GOP in 2016 — they tend to be spared the worst of the bill’s sting.

Conversely, many House Republicans districts are so safe they wouldn’t lose to a Democrat even if the Trump administration unleashed a nuclear holocaust. To the extent that they worry about anything, they worry about losing their reputation for total ideological purism — and inviting a possible primary challenge from the right.

By contrast, Arkansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia are the three of the top five states that have been helped by the Affordable Care Act....

And the most vulnerable 2018 Senate Republican, Dean Heller of Nevada, represents a lower-income state with a lot to lose if AHCA passes. That’s why in addition to the six or so Republicans who’ve raised explicit objections to the House bill, you’ve heard all kinds of murmurs of discontent in the Senate — including from die-hard conservatives like Arkansas’s Tom Cotton.
Now, can the entire Beltway please apologize to Barack Obama?

Right-thinking people told us throughout Obama's presidency that he could have won a lot more legislative battles if he did more schmoozing. We were told that he should have had more convivial drinks with leaders of the opposition, the way, according to legend, Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill regularly did.

Many us countered that Obama was dealing with a GOP that had ruled out negotiations and compromise. Even when Obama won, as he did with the Affordable Care Act, he had to do so by winning over fellow Democrats -- and even they were hard to corral.

Well, now we see that Paul Ryan and Donald Trump (or whoever is negotiating for Trump) are struggling as much as Obama did -- in fact, more. They can't seem to put together a bill that will please enough members of their own party to form House and Senate majorities.

Remember, back in 2010, the notion that a law would increase health care coverage the way the Affordable Care Act has was seen as radically left-wing, at least by conservatives -- and many moderates. You simply couldn't do what needed to be done to cover a lot more people and expect to bring Republicans on board.

Well, now there are Republicans who fear for their political hides if they don't defend Obamacare's coverage levels. Those Republicans have now adopted the position of most Democrats in 2010. But what was then a partisan gap, and is now an intra-party gap, is still unbridgeable: Hardcore conservatives in the GOP refuse to back a law that leaves any of the decent, humane provisions of Obamacare in place.

So now we know that the problem wasn't Obama's failure to schmooze. Right now, with some Republicans talking like 2010 Democrats, even a GOP president who likes to glad-hand apparently can't get to yes.

So please apologize to Barack Obama. It wasn't him -- it was the implacable extremism of most Republicans.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


On the subject of the Republican health care bill, Josh Barro writes:
It's hard to decide which would be the more politically damaging outcome for Republican politicians: passing the American Health Care Act, and therefore owning the premium increases and coverage losses it would cause; or not passing the bill, and therefore failing to do anything that can be framed as "repealing Obamacare."

Each option is a political nightmare for Republicans for the same reason: Each would amount to an admission that Republicans cannot deliver what they have promised for years on healthcare.
I think failure would be a much better outcome for Republicans politically -- as Barro, says, if they pass a bill they'll be responsible for whatever health care looks like in the future (and if it's dictated by this bill, our health care future will be terrible).

But won't they be held accountable for failing to deliver on a promise they've made relentlessly for seven years? Maybe not -- if they all just stop talking about health care.

I think that's a real possibility. I think Republicans may just stop talking about how awful they think Obamacare is, and tiptoe away from the subject whenever possible.

Notice what happened in America as homosexuality gained mainstream acceptance: National Republicans gradually backed away from using opposition to gay marriage as a wedge issue. Yes, they still get worked up when caterers or cake bakers are accused of discrimination for not wanting to provide services for same-sex weddings, and yes, they're still very nasty on transgender rights, but even though nearly all of them will still tell you that legalization of same-sex marriage should have been left to the states, it's now safe for them to say that national legalization of same-sex marriage is settled law. And even "it should have been left to the states" is an improvement over what Republicans were saying a decade ago, when many of them wanted a ban in the federal Constitution. They're certainly not scheduling anti-gay state referenda in order to drive the presidential vote, the way they did, for instance, in 2004. In national elections, they're not talking about gay rights much at all.

Obamacare is gaining acceptance now. So I'm predicting that after the Ryan/Trumpcare bill fails, if it really does fail, D.C. Republicans might become as silent on Obamacare as they've been noisy since the legislation passed. They won't want to remind us that they despised the program for years. They'll never acknowledge the change -- they'll just try to memory-hole their years of incessant opposition. They'll just move on.


The Wall Street Journal editorial board wants Donald Trump to stop lying:
A President’s Credibility

Trump’s falsehoods are eroding public trust, at home and abroad.

If President Trump announces that North Korea launched a missile that landed within 100 miles of Hawaii, would most Americans believe him? Would the rest of the world? We’re not sure, which speaks to the damage that Mr. Trump is doing to his Presidency with his seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods.

The latest example is Mr. Trump’s refusal to back off his Saturday morning tweet of three weeks ago that he had “found out that [Barack] Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory” on Election Day. He has offered no evidence for his claim, and a parade of intelligence officials, senior Republicans and Democrats have since said they have seen no such evidence.

Yet the President clings to his assertion like a drunk to an empty gin bottle....

... Mr. Trump is his own worst political enemy. He survived his many false claims as a candidate because his core supporters treated it as mere hyperbole and his opponent was untrustworthy Hillary Clinton. But now he’s President, and he needs support beyond the Breitbart cheering section that will excuse anything.

... Two months into his Presidency, Gallup has Mr. Trump’s approval rating at 39%. No doubt Mr. Trump considers that fake news, but if he doesn’t show more respect for the truth most Americans may conclude he’s a fake President.
But what the Journal ed board refers to as "the Breitbart cheering section that will excuse anything" apparently consists of the entire Republican electorate, with very few exceptions, according to a new poll reported by The Washington Post:
How many Trump supporters continue to support him enthusiastically? How many continue to support him but are disturbed by many of his actions? How many genuinely regret their vote?

Our Mood of the Nation Poll from Penn State’s McCourtney Institute of Democracy provides answers.

... we asked everyone, “Suppose you could go back in time and vote again in the November election. What would you do?”

... Of the 339 poll participants who originally voted for Trump, only 12 (3½ percent) said they would do something different.

... Of the 327 Trump voters who would vote for him again, only 42 (or 13 percent) asked him to start behaving more presidential. Typical was a 51-year-old woman from Virginia who said she would tell the president, “Continue with your agenda but stop tweeting.”

... these messages were dwarfed by the enormous show of support for the president among those who voted for him....

The largest number of Trump voters sampled — representing millions of voters — asked the president to “stay strong,” “keep it up,”“hang in there” or “stay the course.” Many simply expressed their feelings as fans, as with the respondent who wrote, “Go Donald Go!” Others expressed excitement and pleasure over his performance, as with the voters who wrote:

“Keep up the good work...continue draining the swamp to bring America back to her greatness.”

“You are doing a wonderful job. Keep on doing what you are doing. The American people are behind you. Only those who do not respect what you are dissenting.”
According to this survey, Trump retains the passionate support of nearly his entire voting bloc. Remember that his most primal instinct is self-preservation -- does he really care whether Republicans suffer in the midterms or there's less security and prosperity in America and the world? Yes, the Gallup poll is bad for him -- but it may just be that angry anti-Trump voters are more willing to talk to pollsters these days than Trump backers, who tend to believe all mainstream media and polling outfits are deceitful.

I believe that Trump is historically unpopular for a president in the first months of his term. But if he can sustain this level of support until 2020, he might just slip by a Democrat again, taking advantage of GOP voter suppression and a wealthy corporate donor community that will never bail on the GOP, not to mention campaign finance rules that are only going to get worse once Neil Gorsuch is on the Supreme Court.

Remember that Richard Nixon and George W. Bush won reelection before disapproval of them reached critical mass. It takes a long time for Republicans to lose faith in one of their own, even when the rest of the country has already done so.

Credibility? Trump's base thinks he has all the credibilty he needs, even now. And that base is essentially the entire GOP electorate.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


ABC's Brian Ross and Matthew Mosk report on a verified wiretap at Trump Tower -- but it wasn't aimed at the Trump campaign, which it predated by a couple of years:
There, indeed, was an FBI wiretap involving Russians at Trump Tower.

But it was not placed at the behest of Barack Obama and the target was not the Trump campaign of 2016. For two years ending in 2013, the FBI had a court-approved warrant to eavesdrop on a sophisticated Russian organized crime money laundering network that operated out of unit 63A in Trump Tower.

The FBI investigation led to a federal grand jury indictment of more than 30 people, including one of the world’s most notorious Russian mafia bosses, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov. Known as the “Little Taiwanese,” Tokhtakhounov was the only target to slip away, and he remains a fugitive from American justice....

[Mike] Gaeta, who ran the FBI’s Eurasian Organized Crime unit of the FBI’s New York office told ABC News at the time that federal agents were closely tracking Tokhtakhounov, whose Russian ring was suspected of moving more than $50 million in illegal money into the United States.

... Some of the Russian mafia figures worked out of the 63rd floor unit in the iconic skyscraper –- just three floors below Trump’s penthouse residence -- running what prosecutors called an “international money laundering, sports gambling and extortion ring.”
A 2016 Mother Jones story by David Corn and Hannah Levintova tells us more -- and adds a couple of familiar names to the cast of characters:
On April 16, 2013, federal agents burst into a swanky apartment at Trump Tower in New York City as part of a larger raid that rounded up 29 suspected members of two global gambling rings with operations allegedly overseen by a supposed Russian mob boss named Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov. The Russian was not nabbed by US law enforcement. Since being indicted in the United States a decade earlier for allegedly rigging an ice skating competition at the 2002 Olympics, he had been living in Russia, beyond the reach of Western authorities. And this new gambling indictment did not appear to inconvenience Tokhtakhounov. Seven months after the bust, he was a VIP attendee at Donald Trump's Miss Universe 2013 contest held in Moscow. In fact, Tokhtakhounov hit the red carpet within minutes of Trump....

Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov's tale is an intriguing story of sports, Hollywood stars, poker, and alleged crime. The indictment filed by Preet Bharara...
Yup, Preet Bharara.
... The indictment filed by Preet Bharara, the US attorney in Manhattan, which triggered the 2013 raid, identified Tokhtakhounov as a vory v zakone—or a vor—a Russian term for a select group of the highest-level Russian crime bosses. A vor receives tributes from other criminals, offers protection, and adjudicates conflicts among other crooks. The indictment charged that Tokhtakhounov used his "substantial influence in the criminal underworld" to protect a high-stakes illegal gambling ring operating out of Trump Tower. He sometimes deployed "explicit threats of violence and economic harm" to handle disputes arising from this gambling operation. The indictment noted that in one two-month period he was paid $10 million by this outfit for his services.

The operations of the gambling scheme were handled by two other men: Vadim Trincher and Anatoly Golubchik. The indictment alleged that they and others ran "an international gambling business that catered to oligarchs residing in the former Soviet Union and throughout the world," used "threats of violence to obtain unpaid gambling debts," and "employed a sophisticated money laundering scheme to move tens of millions of dollars…from the former Soviet Union through shell companies in Cyprus into various investments and other shell companies in the United States."
Cyprus? As in the Bank of Cyprus, the Putin-friendly institution that was rescued after its 2013 collapse by a group led by Wilbur Ross, now Trump's secretary of commerce?
Trincher, a dual citizen of the United States and Israel, was a championship professional poker player who had purchased a Trump Tower apartment located directly below an apartment owned by Donald Trump. In 2009, Trincher had paid $5 million for the posh pad. Two years later, he and his wife had reportedly hoped to hold a fundraiser in the apartment for Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign, but they had to cancel the event because of the presence of mold caused by a water leak.
Gingrich? Tied to mobsters? But he seemed so morally outraged by what he called Hillary Clinton's "corruption"!

As for the alleged vor himself, on the basis of this 2013 New York Times profile he seems like quite a mellow guy:

MOSCOW — The waiters hovered as Alimzhan T. Tokhtakhounov worked through a platter of chilled mussels, shrimp and octopus one afternoon last month at the restaurant Palazzo Ducale, one of the finest here. The staff could afford to be attentive: there was no one else to serve....

Like other men whom the American authorities have identified as Russian mobsters, he walks the streets freely, albeit with a bodyguard. He has his picture taken smiling alongside the glitterati at concerts, fashion shows and soccer matches. He invests in real estate and has recently taken up fiction writing. He showed his guest one of his novels, “Angel From Couture,” a semiautobiographical story that focuses on the love affair of a young model and an older man.

Whatever else he may be, he insisted over lunch, he is innocent of all charges against him.

... thieves in law remain a menace in émigré communities abroad, said Sergei Kanev, a reporter covering organized crime at the newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

“Even in America the thieves have a huge influence on former Soviet immigrants,” he said. “Criminal threads still tie them together. All their relatives are here in Russia. A thief might say, ‘Play along, or your uncle and aunt will get it.’ ” ...

[Tokhtakhounov's] Interpol wanted poster accuses him of “bribery in sport contests,” fraud and other malfeasance and says he is affiliated with Semyon Y. Mogilevich, a man the American authorities consider a Russian Mafia godfather who is on the F.B.I.’s Ten Most Wanted list. Mr. Mogilevich also lives freely in Russia.

Mr. Tokhtakhounov denied knowing Mr. Mogilevich.

But he glumly recounted friendships with several others reputed to be Mafia leaders, including those known by the nicknames Grandpa Hassan and Yaponchik, or the Little Japanese, who were killed in recent years in two rare occurrences of mob violence. They were shot by snipers while leaving Moscow restaurants after meals.

At the Palazzo Ducale, as Mr. Tokhtakhounov’s own guard waited, he denied, line by line, the allegations against him. Three waiters continually circled, topping off the water glasses until one wandered too close during conversation and Mr. Tokhtakhounov told him to go away.

“Alimzhan,” the waiter responded, “Don’t worry, you know us: we’re deaf.”
He seems like a fine, upstanding gentleman, doesn't he? I'm sure all of the charges against him are blown completely out of proportion.


A tweet from Richard Engel of NBC News:

A lot of us have worried about that. But I'm starting to suspect that Trump doesn't really crave absolute power, and he might not pursue it if given such an opening. He prefers to regard himself as always on defense -- over and over again he refers to himself as a "counterpuncher."

When he says that, he's only lying up to a point: He claimed throughout the campaign that he went on the attack only when someone attacked him first. But we know how he attacked: In response to a standard campaign critique by an opponent, he'd hit below the belt, using a schoolyard insult ("Little Marco") or a wild conspiracy theory (Ted Cruz's father helped kill JFK).

That was thuggish, but it also left Trump under attack from others -- mainstream politicians who weren't in the race (including some in his own party), as well as Democrats and (especially) the media. He's a nasty fighter, but he's not Putin nasty -- he doesn't leave every opponent dead or marginalized or terrified. Just the opposite: He's always under siege. Look at what's going on right now. Look at yesterday.

Yes, Trump is dangerous. The Muslim ban and stepped-up immigration raids show what he's capable of. But he could have gone further even in these early days. He could have responded to courts blocking the Muslim bans by defying the rulings and ordering enforcement of the executive orders. How would we have stopped him? Who would have stepped up? But that didn't happen.

Brutishness appeals to Trump. But picking fights and finding himself embroiled in controversy also appeals to him. A true thug would be much more interested in the former, and would use the ability to stir up trouble in a much more sinister and calculating way than Trump does.

I'm not recommending that we let our guard down. I'm just wondering whether Trump could bear living in a world in which no enemy of his could seriously fight back.