“The Meddlesome Priest” — Benjamin Wallace-Wells in The New Yorker on the White House’s conundrum on how to deal with James Comey.
“Should I take one of the killer networks that treat me so badly as fake news—should I do that?” Donald Trump said on Friday afternoon, at a press conference in the White House Rose Garden. It didn’t matter which correspondent he called on. Every one of them wanted to ask about the same thing: the testimony that the former F.B.I. director James Comey had given on Thursday. “Go ahead, Jon,” he said, gesturing toward Jonathan Karl, of ABC News. Since he took office, the President’s personality hasn’t changed much, but his King Lear tendency is deepening. Before Karl could ask his question, Trump started musing aloud. “Be fair, Jon,” he said. “Remember how nice you used to be before I ran?”
“Always fair, Mr. President,” Karl said, and then he asked Trump about Comey, who had testified under oath that the President had spoken to him about the Bureau’s investigation of Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser, and had urged him to “let this go.” Karl wanted to know whether Trump agreed with Comey’s account of their conversation. “I didn’t say that,” Trump said. So had Comey lied? “There’d be nothing wrong if I did say it, according to everybody I’ve read today, but I did not say that,” Trump said. This muddied his defense. If he hadn’t tried to get Comey to squash the investigation, why mention that it wouldn’t have been a big deal if he had?
Karl pressed on. Comey had also testified that, at a private dinner in January, Trump had asked for his personal loyalty. Trump said that this was not true either. Karl asked if the President would be willing to testify under oath to this. “One hundred per cent,” Trump said. And that gave the situation a useful clarity: either Comey was lying or Trump was. The President started gesticulating. “I hardly know the man,” he said. “Who would ask a man to pledge allegiance under oath? I mean, think of it. I hardly know the man. It doesn’t make sense.”
In the wake of Thursday’s testimony, the White House is going after Comey, trying to neutralize the threat that his words pose. But the attacks have been convoluted. It has been clear since Trump fired Comey that the former F.B.I. director would have a central and threatening role in the theatre of this Presidency, yet neither Trump nor his advisers and allies seem to have figured out what to say about him.
On Thursday, Kellyanne Conway filibustered her way through an interview on Fox News, insisting that, while Washington was in a tizzy over Comey, the White House was diligently working on policy. She was evidently the good cop. The bad cop was Corey Lewandowski, apparently back in Trump’s good graces, dispatched to the morning shows on Friday to explain that Comey was part of “the deep state” that is out to humiliate Trump. In a tweet, Trump called Comey a “leaker.” Later, at the press conference, Trump described him as both a liar and a tool of Democratic Party. “That was an excuse by the Democrats, who lost an election they shouldn’t have lost,” Trump said.
Comey’s advantage over the President is that he paid close attention during their conversations, wrote down his impressions immediately after the conversations took place, and then shared these notes with others. Comey noticed the way that the President asked the Vice-President, the Attorney General, and his own son-in-law to leave the room before talking to him about the Flynn investigation. Comey noticed when the President was trying to hug him and when he was putting his future as F.B.I. director in question. He noticed the exact words that the President used when he tried to goad him to “see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” He noticed the grandfather clock in the Oval Office, and the Navy stewards, and the time Trump called his cell phone when he was getting into a helicopter with the head of the D.E.A., and how he once had to return a call from the President through the White House switchboard.
Comey is hard to miss—six feet eight, with popped marionette eyes. But it seems that the White House never really got a good look at him. Was he a Democratic partisan, or an agent of the deep state, or the star of some self-aggrandizing melodrama (a “showboat,” the President told NBC’s Lester Holt a few weeks ago, and a “grandstander”)? Maybe if Trump had noticed the awkwardness with which (if we believe Comey’s account) the F.B.I. director ducked out of a hug, or the belabored way in which he avoided pledging his loyalty, Trump would have realized sooner that Comey was not his friend, and not part of his cadre. And perhaps his aides would have a clearer way of describing the man they are now trying to impugn.
At the press conference on Friday—on a bright June afternoon—Trump stood podium to podium with President Klaus Iohannis, of Romania, a muscular former physics teacher from Transylvania. The Comey-centered questions emanating from the American press corps alternated with wider-ranging queries from the travelling press.
One Romanian journalist, a young woman, asked the two Presidents whether, in their one-on-one meeting, they had talked about giving Romania access to a visa-waiver program. “We didn’t discuss it,” Trump said, and then, after saying he’d be open to accommodating Romania, gestured over to Iohannis.
“I mentioned this,” the Romanian President said, perhaps trying to be politic. To his left, Trump just nodded. Had he noticed the difference?
Could Jon Ossoff Win? — Tim Murphy in Mother Jones on the special election in Georgia.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution dropped a new poll of the most expensive special congressional election in history, and it is good news for Democrat Jon Ossoff and liberals across the country who have placed inordinately high stakes on Georgia’s 6th District just six months after a Republican cruised to reelection there by 23 points. According to the AJC, Ossoff leads Republican Karen Handel by 7 points, 51 to 44, which is outside the margin of error. Another poll released Thursday showed Ossoff with a 3-point lead, 50 to 47.
The election is still 11 days away, but early voting began a week and a half ago and is proceeding at a rapid clip that is almost on par with the early-voting turnout of the 2016 presidential election.
An Ossoff win wouldn’t make much of a dent in the Republican majority in the House, and after raising $23 million (a record for a House candidate who is not self-funding), he’d likely to have to raise a ton of money again as a top Republican target in 18 months. But Democrats have latched onto the seat, previously held by Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price (and, years earlier, Newt Gingrich), as a way to make a major statement months into President Donald Trump’s term. Hillary Clinton nearly carried the district during her presidential campaign, and the Democrats’ strategy for retaking the House hinges on replicating that success—not just in Georgia’s 6th but in similar affluent suburban districts in California, Kansas, Texas, and elsewhere. An Ossoff win would be a strong signal that they can, and it would hand an energized grassroots a badly needed breakthrough.
Republican criticism of Ossoff has mostly focused on personal issues, such as his youth, his support from national Democrats, a brief stint making documentaries for Al Jazeera, and, bizarrely, a video of a college-age Ossoff dressed as Han Solo. To the disappointment of some on the party’s left flank, Ossoff has run openly as a moderate; he told reporters recently that he opposed a single-payer health care plan (which is fast becoming the party’s new standard) and in a historically conservative district has focused on issues like cutting government waste and promoting the tech industry.
But one big progressive plank he has adopted—support for a living wage—produced one of the campaign’s signature moments. At a debate on Monday, Ossoff and Handel were asked if they supported raising the minimum wage to a “livable wage.” (The questioner did not specify an amount, but the most common figure thrown out by proponents is $15 an hour.) Ossoff said yes. Handel very much did not.
“This is an example of the fundamental difference between a liberal and a conservative: I do not support a livable wage,” she said. “What I support is making sure that we have an economy that is robust with low taxes and less regulation.”
Meanwhile, Democrats seem encouraged enough by Ossoff’s performance in the suburbs north of Atlanta to have recently added another suburban Georgia seat to their target list next year: the 7th District, currently represented by Republican Rob Woodall. This week, Woodall got his first Democratic opponent.
Policies? What Policies? — Derek Thompson in The Atlantic on what Trump isn’t going to be doing.
It’s “Infrastructure Week” at the White House. Theoretically.
On Monday, the administration announced a plan to spend $200 billion on infrastructure and overhaul U.S. air traffic control. There was a high-profile signing in the East Wing before dozens of cheering lawmakers and industry titans. It was supposed to be the beginning of a weeklong push to fix America’s roads, bridges, and airports.
But in the next two days, Trump spent more energy burning metaphorical bridges than trying to build literal ones. He could have stayed on message for several hours, gathered Democrats and Republicans to discuss a bipartisan agreement, and announced a timeframe. Instead he quickly turned his attention to Twitter to accuse media companies of “Fake News” while undermining an alliance with Qatar based on what may be, fittingly, a fake news story.
It’s a microcosm of this administration’s approach to public policy. A high-profile announcement, coupled with an ambitious promise, subsumed by an unrelated, self-inflicted public-relations crisis, followed by … nothing.
The secret of the Trump infrastructure plan is: There is no infrastructure plan. Just like there is no White House tax plan. Just like there was no White House health care plan. More than 120 days into Trump’s term in a unified Republican government, Trump’s policy accomplishments have been more in the subtraction category (e.g., stripping away environmental regulations) than addition. The president has signed no major legislation and left significant portions of federal agencies unstaffed, as U.S. courts have blocked what would be his most significant policy achievement, the legally dubious immigration ban.
The simplest summary of White House economic policy to date is four words long: There is no policy.
Consider the purported focus of this week. An infrastructure plan ought to include actual proposals, like revenue-and-spending details and timetables. The Trump infrastructure plan has little of that. Even the president’s speech on Monday was devoid of specifics. (An actual line was: “We have studied numerous countries, one in particular, they have a very, very good system; ours is going to top it by a lot.”) The ceremonial signing on Monday was pure theater. The president, flanked by politicians and businesspeople smiling before the twinkling of camera flashes, signed a paper that merely asks Congress to work on a bill. An assistant could have done that via email. Meanwhile, Congress isn’t working on infrastructure at all, according to Politico, and Republicans have shown no interest in a $200 billion spending bill.
In short, this “plan” is not a plan, so much as a Potemkin policy, a presentation devised to show the press and the public that the president has an economic agenda. The show continued on Wednesday, as the president delivered an infrastructure speech in Cincinnati that criticized Obamacare, hailed his Middle East trip, and offered no new details on how his plan would work. Infrastructure Week is a series of scheduled performances to make it look as if the president is hard at work on a domestic agenda that cannot move forward because it does not exist.
Journalists are beginning to catch on. The administration’s policy drought has so far been obscured by a formulaic bait-and-switch strategy one could call the Two-Week Two-Step. Bloomberg has compiled several examples of the president promising major proposals or decisions on everything from climate-change policy to infrastructure “in two weeks.” He has missed the fortnight deadline almost every time.
The starkest false promise has been taxes. “We’re going to be announcing something I would say over the next two or three weeks,” Trump said of tax reform in early February. Eleven weeks later, in late April, the White House finally released a tax proposal. It was hardly one page long.
Arriving nine weeks late, the document was so vague that tax analysts marveled that they couldn’t even say how it would work. Even its authors are confused: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has repeatedly declined to say whether the plan will cut taxes on the rich, even though cutting taxes on the rich is ostensibly the centerpiece. Perhaps it’s because he needs more help: None of the key positions for making domestic tax policy have been filled. There is no assistant secretary for tax policy, nor deputy assistant secretary for tax analysis, according to the Treasury Department.
Once again, the simplest summary of White House tax policy is: There is no plan. There isn’t even a complete staff to compose one.
The story is slightly different for the White House budget, but no more favorable. The budget suffers, not from a lack of details, but from a failure of numeracy that speaks to the administration’s indifference toward serious public policy. The authors double-counted a projected benefit from higher GDP growth, leading to $2 trillion math error, perhaps the largest ever in a White House proposal. The plan included hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue from the estate tax, which appears to be another mistake, since the White House has separately proposed eliminating it.
Does the president’s budget represent what the president’s policies will be? It should, after all. But asked this very question, Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, made perhaps the strangest claim of all: “I wouldn’t take what’s in the budget as indicative of what our proposals are,” he said.
This haphazard approach extends to the repeal of Obamacare, which may yet pass the Senate, but with little help or guidance from the president. Trump has allowed House Speaker Paul Ryan to steer the Obamacare-replacement bill, even though it violates the president’s campaign promises to expand coverage and protect Medicaid. After its surprising passage in the House, he directly undercut it on Twitter by suggesting he wants to raise federal health spending. Even on the most basic question of health-care policy—should spending go up, or down?—the president’s Twitter account and his favored law are irreconcilable. A law cannot raise and slash health care funding at the same time. The Trump health care plan does not exist.
It would be a mistake to call this a policy-free presidency. Trump has signed several executive orders undoing Obama-era regulations, removing environmental protections, and banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries. He has challenged NATO and pulled out of the Paris Accords. But these accomplishments all have one thing in common: Trump was able to do them alone. Signing executive orders and making a speech don’t require the participation of anybody in government except for the president.
It’s no surprise that a former chief executive of a private company would be more familiar with the presumption of omnipotence than the reality of divided powers. As the head of his own organization, Trump could make unilateral orders that subordinates would have to follow. But passing a law requires tireless persuasion and the cooperation of hundreds of representatives in the House and Senate who cannot be fired for insubordination. Being the president of the United States is nothing like being a CEO, especially not one of an eponymous family company.
Republicans in the House and Senate don’t need the president’s permission to write laws, either. Still, they too have struggled to get anything done. Several GOP senators say they may not repeal Obamacare this year—or ever. It is as if, after seven years of protesting Obamacare, the party lost the muscle memory to publicly defend and enact legislation.
In this respect, Trump and his party are alike—united in their antagonism toward Obama-era policies and united in their inability to articulate what should come next. Republicans are trapped by campaign promises that they cannot fulfill. The White House is trapped inside of the president’s perpetual campaign, a cavalcade of economic promises divorced from any effort to detail, advocate, or enact major economic legislation. With an administration that uses public policy as little more than a photo op, get ready for many sequels to this summer’s Infrastructure Week.