Impeachment Will Not Fix This

I left Washington last week while it was in a state of suspended animation over former FBI Director James Comey’s upcoming testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Now that Comey has sworn under oath that the president is an untrustworthy liar who operates like the head of a crime syndicate, it’s not surprising that the I-word has begun to enter the conversation as perhaps the only corrective to a growing cascade of crime and coverup. After all, it was obstruction of justice that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation in the face of certain impeachment, and while the politics of Republican survival precludes the possibility of removing Donald Trump from office right now, the cost of defending him will continue to mount as more details become public and his public support erodes. The situation is unstable and unsustainable, and pressure for a resolution will grow if the resistance to Trump remains focused and organized.

Without diminishing the importance of building the coalitions that could one day make it possible to remove Trump from office, I want to address the limits of what impeachment can do to fix the underlying problems that led us here. Ousting Trump through legal means would be like removing a rusty nail from the gut of the constitutional system, yanking out the source of infection without cleaning or closing the wound. The more contentious the extraction, the more we risk aggravating the injury. And does anyone think the process won’t be ugly?

I see at least two issues—there may be more—that we will have to address before the wound can properly heal.

One issue involves legitimacy. When intelligence officials tell us with certainty that Russia interfered with the 2016 election, we should step back and consider what that means. We still do not know the scope of the interference, the extent of collusion by the Trump campaign, how much the president knew and what promises might have been made Read More

It’s Either the Republican Party or the Republic

My second week in Washington played out against the dizzying backdrop of revelations that moved the Trump/Russia probe directly into the White House inner circle with allegations of espionage emerging from the lips of the talkers who populate cable news programming. Mounting evidence that the president is obstructing and undermining investigations into his relationship with Russia complement his bizarre embrace of Vladimir Putin at the expense of America’s European allies, elevating the president’s actions to the level of national security risk. Google “Trump” along with “clear and present danger” to get a sense of what some experts are saying about the immediate security threats posed by this administration. After my first week here, I wrote that events are moving quickly but the political reaction to them is moving slowly. That dynamic is more pronounced—and surreal—after everything that has transpired since.

Official Washington has not reacted to Trump’s Russian connections with anything close to the breathlessness that characterized coverage of Hillary’s email server, a scandal built around a security threat as hypothetical as this one is real. The reasons are political and speak to how low Republicans had to sink in order to ride Trump to power. Trump moved successfully to solidify support among his base in completing his hostile takeover of the Republican Party, and although there has been slippage in recent days, it remains strong enough to frighten congressional Republicans who depend on his voters for their jobs. One might think that a national security threat to the country would be enough to move some Republicans to provide the constitutional check on the executive required of congress, but one would be wrong. Thus far, the choice between country and party has been a no-brainer.

I’ve heard several Washingtonians express the opinion that Republican unease with Trump—which from what I have observed is real and widespread—is being kept in check so that Republicans can implement their legislative agenda Read More

They Don’t Know What To Do

Every spring for the past decade I have led a group of Villanova students through official Washington, and every year Washington feels a little different depending on the political circumstances of the moment. During my first trip in 2008, the Bush administration was winding down, twenty-somethings had replaced veterans in responsible jobs, and Republicans were on the market in anticipation of a Democratic victory in the fall. By the following year, hope-and-change fever had swept the Potomac and Democrats owned the city, prompting a tense exchange between a few of my more conservative students and a party official who flaunted his role in Obama’s victory. All hints of arrogance were erased in 2010, as Republicans anticipated and Democrats braced for the drubbing they would face the following fall.

These years and the six that would follow were marked by a kind of certainty produced by the familiar rhythms of the political cycle. Presidents come and go, party fortunes ebb and flow, and professional members of the political class adjust to predictable changes in the political climate, much as you adjust your clothing to suit the month on the calendar. But not this year. This spring in Washington feels like a season upended by global warming, when the date on the calendar doesn’t align with the weather. Four months into a new administration is supposed to be the heart of the presidential honeymoon phase, when legislative progress is made, press stories are friendly, and public approval is high. Instead, we are four months into what just about everyone realizes is a bad marriage. There are some divorce rumors but few are willing to say so out loud.

People are exhausted. Talk to journalists, congressional aides—pretty much anyone who makes a living in the corridors of power—and they will tell you they want to put a stop to the cascade of outrageous statements and damaging stories Read More

Enablers

Remember when the grown-ups in congress were going to check the worst impulses of the president? That was the rationalization offered to reluctant Republicans by those trying to unify the party around a presidential candidate with authoritarian tendencies. Sure, he’s reckless and crazy, but Trump will be kept in line by the adults in the legislative branch.

In fact, there have been external checks on the president during these dizzying first four months of the Trump administration, but congress has not been among them. We have seen pushback from corners of the judiciary and the permanent bureaucracy, from some journalists and opinion leaders and most importantly from the energized crowds that took to the streets on day two of the administration and continue to disrupt congressional constituent meetings with vocal, pointed opposition. But from congressional Republicans there is mostly silence, punctuated occasionally by expressions of concern about the president’s anti-democratic behavior but, thus far, no substantive action.

There is a good reason for this, and you need look no further than today’s Gallup Poll to find it. Solid majorities have disapproved of Trump’s performance in office almost every day since the first week of his presidency. His overall job approval hovers around 40%, a record-shattering low for a new president. But Republicans inhabit a different Read More

Incompetence

Donald Trump is right about one thing: the 100-day standard used to evaluate presidential performance is ridiculous, an artifact of the landmark accomplishments of FDR’s first months when a national crisis and congressional supermajorities made possible a torrent of policy advances the likes of which we are unlikely to see again. But like it or not, those evaluations are coming and they will be harsh.

At Wolves and Sheep, we are not bound by convention or inside-the-Beltway wisdom. So rather than wait another week, I submit to you my 92-day assessment (because, why not?) of the Trump administration.

You can divide the last three months into three distinct phases. Phase I: aggressive use of executive orders. Phase II: comedic attempts at unified governance. Phase III: blowing things up.

The administration was born in a flurry of Bannon-esque aggressiveness designed to establish the new president’s dominance through a relentless series of executive orders aimed at reversing the priorities of his predecessor and bellicose pronouncements that raised the specter of war with Mexico and Australia. Although it felt like a decade, this phase lasted just a bit more than a week before Trump found himself tripped up by the Constitution and the emergence of a resistance movement unprecedented in recent American history. The massive pushback to Trump’s travel ban at airports across the country made it difficult for the administration to defy court orders curtailing the president’s ability to act. Although it wasn’t apparent at the time, this early test of Trump’s use and abuse of executive authority was a turning point in the administration’s direction. It was far from clear at the outset that Trump would back down and respect court directives in the face of public pressure. He spoke and acted as if he was prepared to disregard anyone who got in his way. But political and institutional checks on the presidency held up, perhaps imperfectly, but Read More

Accountability

Democracy dies without accountability. The democratic system is built on our ability to know what our representatives are doing and kick officials out of office as a corrective to poor performance.

This is how the mechanism is supposed to work: Candidates tell us what they want to do if they are elected. They give us honest information about their platforms which we use to decide how to vote. In office, officials attempt to enact their campaign agenda. Then they run for re-election on their record, defending it honestly and on a level playing field against challengers who criticize it fairly. We assess the record of incumbents and the promises of challengers, and if we’re unhappy with how we’re being represented, we make a change.

You probably see the problem here. At every juncture, the process has been undermined by those who do not want to be held accountable for their actions in office. We are inundated with false information, bankrolled by freely flowing supplies of dark money from unidentified contributors whose interests would never withstand public scrutiny. Most congressional incumbents can leverage the advantages of their office to make sure their re-election bids are non-competitive before would-be opponents have a chance to organize a campaign. The connection between public preferences and public officials is weakened or severed.

Of course, the democratic ideal has always been elusive. Officials since the beginning of the republic have misrepresented their opponents’ positions and re-written their own records to avoid being held responsible for unpopular actions, and incumbents of both parties are more than happy to perpetuate a system that makes this easy Read More

The Obamacare Trap

After seven years of making Obamacare repeal their number one objective, Republicans have fallen into a trap of their own creation and revealed to the country that they are not prepared to be a governing party. This afternoon, they abandoned their repeal measure when they couldn’t assemble a winning House coalition despite the unanimous desire in their caucus to uproot President Obama’s signature achievement. The bill produced by House leadership with the approval of the president was rejected by radicals angry that it didn’t extract Obamacare by the roots and by politically astute conservatives who understood they couldn’t explain to their constituents why 24 million people would lose coverage and countless more would lose benefits if the bill became law. Despite casting over 60 ceremonial votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act when Obama was in the White House, the pressures of having to live with the consequences of their actions proved too much for a caucus that had to confront political reality for the first time.

The “repeal and replace” mantra was good politics, serving as a rallying cry for the Republican base. No objective has animated the modern Republican Party more than repealing Obamacare and replacing it with something better. Their narrative was simple and clear: Obamacare is a disaster, a threat to personal liberty, an example of government overreach, and the source of skyrocketing healthcare costs. During the presidential campaign and the first months of his presidency, Donald Trump said he would replace it with a “beautiful” plan that would cover everyone at a lower cost with better benefits, and that he could make it happen quickly because of his legendary negotiating skills.

But slogans are not policies, and Republicans had little more than disingenuous claims to support their rhetoric. Obamacare maintains the private insurance market and does not include a public insurance option, but that hasn’t kept Republicans from characterizing it as a big government program that threatens freedom of choice, as if people were clamoring to choose among insufficient or overly expensive healthcare options in order to preserve their Read More

Governing Is Hard

Donald Trump recently discovered that reforming health care is complicated. And, wouldn’t you know, governing is complicated too, as Trump’s party began to recognize this week during its flailing first attempt to put legislative language to its longstanding promise to repeal and replace Obamacare. Under ideal circumstances, making dramatic changes to a policy that deeply affects every American requires exceptional political skill, and Republicans most certainly are not operating under ideal circumstances.

Victory can paper over a lot of disagreements, but the fault lines that divide a party inevitably reemerge when irrevocable decisions have to be made. And, let’s be clear—the Republican Party was on the verge of imploding before Trump’s improbable win gave it control of the entire federal government. Those fissures cracked wide open this week as congressional leaders unveiled a plan to dismantle the Affordable Care Act that pleased precisely no one and met with resistance from all corners of the Republican Party and unified opposition from Democrats. To push back against this pushback, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell decided their best option was to ram the bill through congress before opposition could coalesce, staging marathon all night hearings on Thursday while Sean Spicer, the voice of truth in the Trump administration, reassuringly offered that “we’re not jamming this down people’s throats.”

But it may already be too late to save the legislation from the storms roiling the party, which is confronting several intractable problems of its own creation: Read More

Compassion

Donald Trump’s ticket to staying in power requires dividing the country into cultural, ethnic, racial, gender and religious groups and inciting conflict among them. The fate of the resistance movement requires bringing these groups together in common cause against someone whose values are antithetical to fundamental elements of American political culture. To succeed, the resistance needs to do more than position itself against Trump. It needs to advocate for the values it embodies in order to create the foundation for a more just society that will need to be built on the ashes of Trumpism.

This requires reaching across the divide. It requires listening to others, especially those who voted for Donald Trump out of a sense of desperation. It requires putting aside differences and speaking to each other like the neighbors we are.

Fortunately, the emerging resistance movement is claiming to represent American values rather than simply progressive values (or, if you prefer, claiming that progressive values are American values). This makes it more than a movement of the left and opens the possibility that it can attract those who would never vote for Hillary Clinton but recognize the existential threat Donald Trump poses to the country. Indivisible—the name of one of the grassroots umbrella groups helping to organize resistance tactics—deliberately evokes the Pledge of Allegiance, takes aim at Read More

Fault Lines

Donald Trump held a press conference on Thursday in which his familiar brand of narcissism clashed dramatically with the familiar setting of the East Room. In a rambling diatribe against reporters that lasted well over an hour, Trump displayed the same talent for channeling grievance that propelled him to the Republican nomination. He claimed credit for unspecified accomplishments, denied his White House is in chaos, and continued to obsess over the terms of his election victory.

The reaction from opinion leaders was brutal. Legacy media outlets were quick to call his performance dishonest, self-indulgent and unhinged. CNN characterized it as a stunning display of anger.  The New Yorker referred to it as “alternative reality” where a manifestly unsuitable president bragged about the mythical progress he has made. Criticism crossed ideological lines. Fox News’ Shepard Smith called it absolutely crazy. Joe Scarborough said it was chaotic and rambling, and noted how Republican members of congress he had spoken to were scared to death by a president seemingly out of touch with reality. Retired Admiral Robert Harward reportedly walked away from the chance to head the National Security Council after watching it.

But among the still significant legions of core Trump supporters, reactions were quite different. For those less concerned with substance and fact than with visible displays of strength, Trump’s press conference was a tour de force, an over-the-top reminder to his voters that he’s in charge and doing things differently. NBC News solicited reaction from blue collar voters in Kenosha, Wisconsin (because, why not) and had little difficulty finding people who thought it was great, or who at least felt Trump should be given a chance to prove himself. Noted Scarborough, a former Read More

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