The White House has an official excuse for asking the FBI to debunk a New York Times story about Trump campaign aides having frequent contacts with Russian intelligence officials. Here it is: They started it. That is, the FBI approached them, not the other way around.

I guess that's appropriate for the Trump administration, which is best thought of as an overgrown kindergartner. However, First Read isn't sure this defense does them any favors:

This White House explanation raises the question: So what's worse — the White House asking the FBI to publicly knock down a story, or the FBI pulling aside a top White House official to comment on the big story of the day? Just ask yourself: If you substituted Clinton's and Lynch's names for Priebus' and McCabe's, would the congressional hearings already be scheduled?

Yep. And if an FBI official really did pull aside Reince Priebus to whisper in his ear that the Times story was wrong, that still suggests an improper relationship between the FBI and the White House. In any case, First Read goes on to suggest that the Times wasn't all that wrong anyway. Here is Ken Dilanian:

"NBC News was told by law enforcement and intelligence sources that the NYT story WAS wrong — in its use of the term 'Russian intelligence officials.' Our sources say there were contacts with Russians, but that the US hasn't confirmed they work for spy agencies. We were also told CNN's description of Trump aides being in 'constant touch' with Russians was overstated. However, our sources did tell us that intelligence intercepts picked up contacts among Trump aides and Russians during the campaign."

Of course, the Times may have different sources telling them different things. One way or another, it appears that Trump aides were in periodic contact with Russian officials during the campaign, and the only questions are: (a) were they intelligence officials? and (b) how often did they talk? Considering Trump's bizarre fixation on Vladimir Putin and his administration's obvious panic over this story, a good guess is that there really is something there they want to keep under wraps.

And just for a final comical effect, after asking the FBI to leak information to the press, Trump himself then took to Twitter to complain about the FBI being unable to stop leaks:

Do you laugh or cry? We're going to be asking ourselves that a lot, I think. Only 204 weeks to go.

Yesterday I griped about a story that wildly misrepresented the alleged effect of President Trump's travel ban on the tourism industry. However, it's worth pointing out that there does seem to be a milder version of the story that's actually true:

It’s known as the “Trump Slump.” And I know of no reputable travel publication to deny it.

Thus, the prestigious Travel Weekly magazine (as close to an “official” travel publication as they come) has set the decline in foreign tourism at 6.8%....On the web, flight searches for trips heading to the U.S. out of all international locations was recently down by 17%....According to the Global Business Travel Association, in only a single week following announcement of the ban against certain foreign tourists, the activity of business travel declined by nearly $185 million.

International tourism contributes about $100 billion to the US economy each year. If that declines 6.8 percent, that's $6.8 billion. If you figure the Trump Slump is a temporary thing, maybe it's more like $3 billion or so.

In other words, not earth shaking on a national level. Still, if Trump's immigration policies are going to cost us $3 billion, he'd better figure out how he's planning to make that up. A few hundred jobs at a Carrier plant aren't going to come close.

Last week the New York Times reported that members of Donald Trump's campaign staff "had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election. The White House vigorously denies this, and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus went on TV to knock down the story. That's fine. But it turns out Priebus did more than that. According to CNN, Priebus asked the FBI to tell reporters that there was nothing to the story:

The discussions between the White House and the bureau began with FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe1 and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus on the sidelines of a separate White House meeting the day after the stories were published, according to a U.S. law enforcement official.

....[A] White House official said that Priebus later reached out again to McCabe and to FBI Director James Comey asking for the FBI to at least talk to reporters on background to dispute the stories.2 A law enforcement official says McCabe didn't discuss aspects of the case but wouldn't say exactly what McCabe told Priebus.

Comey rejected the request for the FBI to comment on the stories, according to sources, because the alleged communications between Trump associates and Russians known to US intelligence are the subject of an ongoing investigation.

I wonder if anyone in the Trump White House even understands how inappropriate this is? They might not. Partly it's because they're so inexperienced, and partly it's because they've all been marinating in the Trump worldview that you're a chump if you let delicate moral sensibilities get in the way of hitting back against your enemies. They might well believe that asking the FBI to talk to reporters is no different than asking the press secretary to talk to reporters.

If this is true, it's no excuse. I'm just curious. If Priebus knew this was wrong, it's hard to believe that he would have pressed the bureau multiple times, even knowing that it was almost certain to leak eventually.

In other words, at best they're muttonheads. At worst they're casually corrupt. Take your pick.

1In case that name sounds familiar, it's the same Andrew McCabe who was supposedly at the center of one of the dumbest "Hillary scandal" stories ever written outside of the fever swamps.3 Long story short, McCabe's wife is a Democrat. ZOMG!

2This is especially rich since Reibus whined just a few days ago about reporters using anonymous sources. "Put names on a piece of paper and print it," he said on Face the Nation. "If people aren’t willing to put their name next to a quote, then the quote shouldn’t be listed."

3Speaking of which, can you even imagine the epic meltdown we'd be enduring from Republicans right now if Hillary Clinton had done anything like this?

Here's a headline currently running in the New York Times:

I don't have any beef with this. The Democratic base is demanding total war on Trump, and Democratic politicians have mostly gotten on board. What I do wonder, though, is whether the Times ever used language like this during the first couple of months of the Obama administration? Maybe they did, but via Google, here's a walk down memory lane as reported by the Times in early 2009:

Obama woos and visits and holds receptions and reaches out and sets a new tone. Republicans are "resistant," they skip briefings, they vote unanimously against budgets, and unanimously against the stimulus bill. But there's no war in those headlines.

Later, of course, we learned that there was a war. Before Obama was even inaugurated, Republicans met and agreed to form a united front that unanimously blocked every Obama initiative, sight unseen. The fact that the country was mired in the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression didn't matter. Their only goal was to prevent Obama from having any legislative successes.

The smoking guns that uncovered this strategy didn't come until later, but anyone reporting from Capitol Hill surely knew what was happening almost immediately. Republicans publicly spurned Obama's attempts to compromise. They voted against the stimulus bill unanimously in the House and nearly unanimously in the Senate. They launched the era of the routine filibuster on everything. They embraced the tea party within a month of Obama taking office.

In other words, it was all pretty obvious. And yet, coverage at the time tended to refer vaguely to a "breakdown in bipartisanship." Perhaps Democrats were pushing too hard? Maybe they were unwilling to compromise? Surely Republicans were sincere about their opposition to increasing the deficit?

So why the difference this time? Democratic activists have been pretty vocal about what they want, but then again, by this time in 2009 the tea party had already gotten its start. They were pretty vocal too.

My guess: as always, Republicans are given a pass for their ultra-conservative views, which might be a little crazy, but are still presumed to be deeply rooted and genuine. Democrats, conversely, are generally thought craven if they "give in" to their base. Democrats tend to be a bit wonkier and more policy driven than Republicans, and as a result reporters generally don't believe that they're truly passionate about their principles. The very fact that they're more willing to compromise proves this. So when they oppose Trump, they've "conceded" to their base; they're "mimicking" the Republican strategy; they're "quietly worried" that their base expects too much; they "still hope for compromise"; and "protesters are leading the politicians." In other words, it's pretty calculated, not at all like those Republicans with their deeply ingrained family values and distrust of government.

Blecch. Can you tell I'm annoyed?

Counterterrorism crackpot Sebastian Gorka appeared on Fox & Friends this morning to argue against closing Guantanamo Bay:

President Obama released lots and lots of people that were there for very good reason, and what happened? Almost half the time they returned to the battlefield.

This comes via Jesse Singal, who points out that twice a year the Director of National Intelligence releases a report called "Summary of the Reengagement of Detainees Formerly Held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba." That makes it pretty easy to check on this. Here's a summary of all the recidivism figures since they began the reports in 2012:

During his eight years in the White House, President Obama released 161 Guantanamo detainees—the ones Dick Cheney called "the worst of the worst" when he left office back in 2009. Thanks to careful vetting and competent diplomacy, the recidivism rate of these detainees has been only about 12 percent (5.6 percent confirmed). That's three times better than the Bush/Cheney record.

As for Gorka, I suppose "almost" can be stretched to mean a lot of things. But can 12.4 percent be stretched to mean "almost half"? In the Trump administration, apparently it can.

In today's episode of Confess Your Unpopular Opinions, I confess that I kind of like Mitch McConnell. I'm grading on a curve, of course, the curve being "people who oppose everything that is right and good about America." Still, I kind of like the fact that McConnell doesn't generally get on his high horse. For example, when Republicans blocked Merrick Garland last year, most conservatives started peddling a load of nonsense about how Supreme Court justices were never confirmed in a president's final year and they were just upholding the grand traditions of the Senate blah blah blah. But not McConnell. He basically said that Republicans were doing it because they could. That's OK. I mean, if you're going to screw me, don't try to pretend that you're doing me a favor at the same time.

Likewise, I kind of liked John Boehner too. He was just a man born too late. If he had been Speaker of the House 30 years earlier, he would have been fine. He would have logrolled and compromised and made deals and the government would have chugged along. By 2011, however, the GOP was fully tea party-ized and Boehner had more trouble with his own caucus than he did with the Democrats.

Boehner seemed genuinely happy when he finally left the House, and ever since he's been unusually open about the reality of trying to deal with the loons in his own party. Today, he cheerfully explained that Republican plans to quickly repeal Obamacare were just "happy talk":

He said changes to former President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement would likely be relatively modest. “[Congressional Republicans are] going to fix Obamacare — I shouldn’t call it repeal-and-replace, because it’s not going to happen,” he said.

....Boehner said the talk in November about lightning-fast passage of a new health care framework was wildly optimistic. “I started laughing,” he said. “Republicans never ever agree on health care.”

“Most of the framework of the Affordable Care Act ... that’s going to be there,” Boehner concluded.

Yep. I wrote a piece for the magazine a couple of months ago making the same point, and it got way less attention than I thought it deserved. That's rankled my fragile male ego ever since, so I'm taking this opportunity to highlight it again. Here's the ending:

Obamacare's preexisting-conditions provision provides Democrats with some leverage. Republicans need Democratic votes to repeal the provision and pass a workable law, which means that if Democrats hold out they can certainly get a far better deal than Ryan's plan. They might even be able to stop the Obamacare repeal in its tracks. It all depends on how well they play their hand.

Boehner's argument is expressed differently than mine, but it comes to the same thing: the best way for Republicans to repeal and replace Obamacare is to compromise with Democrats. Their next best option is to somehow ram through a plan of their own and accept all the flak this entails. However, both options require Republicans to stay ruthlessly united, and as Boehner says, what are the odds of that?

Good 'ol Pew Research. They do some intriguing work sometimes. Today they released "Partisan Conflict and Congressional Outreach," which analyzed 200,000 press releases and Facebook posts from members of Congress using "methods from the emerging field of computational social science" in order to "quantify how often legislators themselves 'go negative' in their outreach to the public." Here's the basic finding:

The most moderate Republican expresses disagreement at the same rate as the most extreme Democrat. The average Republican expresses disagreement at about three times the rate of the average Democrat.

But maybe this is all nice, polite disagreement? Nope. Pew categorized negativity as both "disagreement" and "indignant disagreement,"  which they helpfully define as "a type of disagreement that also expresses anger, resentment or annoyance." Republicans expressed indignant disagreement at three times the rate of Democrats. And if we turn our attention to Facebook, there's a reason for this:

Sadly, this is not broken down by party. I would be (genuinely!) interested in knowing whether indignant disagreement increases Facebook engagement as much among Democrats as Republicans. Something for the next report, I guess.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says President Obama held back the economy:

Mr. Mnuchin, in his first interview since his confirmation last week as Treasury secretary, said slower economic growth since the financial crisis had primarily been an anomaly and a result of Obama administration policies that can be reversed....“We think it’s critical that we get back to more normalized economic growth. More normalized economic growth is 3% or higher,” Mr. Mnuchin said.

Huh. But what about the strength of the dollar?

He said the strong U.S. dollar is a reflection of confidence in the U.S. economy and its performance compared with the rest of the world and was a “good thing” in the long run....The dollar has appreciated by 23% over the past three years and added to those gains since the November election.

“I think the strength of the dollar has a lot to do with kind of where our economy is relative to the rest of the world, and that the dollar continues to be the leading currency in the world, the leading reserve currency and a reflection of the confidence that people have in the U.S. economy,” Mr. Mnuchin said.

So which is it? Did Obama's policies tank the American economy? Or are they responsible for stronger growth than anywhere else in the world, as reflected in the strength of the dollar? The Trumpies really ought to make up their minds about whether America is a trade-blighted hellhole or the best performing economy in the world.

Here are a few immigration headlines plucked at random from Google News:

  • New York Times: Immigrants Hide, Fearing Capture on ‘Any Corner’
     
  • LA Times: 'You can't even walk anywhere without fearing you may get caught': Immigrants in U.S. illegally prepare for possible deportation
     
  • USA Today: It's a frightening day to be an undocumented immigrant in America
     
  • Fox32 Chicago: Immigrants fearing deportation under Trump change routines, won't even go outside
     
  • WFAA Dallas: Immigration fears: Dreamer arrested in Dallas

It's not (yet) clear that ICE is rounding up any more immigrants than in the past, but they're doing it way more loudly and with way more headlines than before. As you'd expect, this is scaring the hell out of people. Ed Kilgore comments:

“Fear in the immigrant community” is itself a crucial tool for this administration given the signs that it would prefer that as many as possible of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country decide to self-deport. It is certainly less expensive and visible than running down huge numbers of people, holding them in detention facilities, and then shipping them out of the country.

....If the self-deportation strategy doesn’t work substantively or politically, then we will find out whether Kelly and Trump have the stomach for the police-state tactics that would be necessary to deport many millions of people by force.

My guess is a little different. I doubt that this noisy crackdown will cause very many undocumented workers to go back to Mexico or Central America. This is not the first time they've been the target of a grandstanding politician, and for the most part they'll ride it out, just as they have with previous crackdowns.

However, it might very well dissuade further illegal immigration. What with the wall and the increased border security and the raids, a fair number of people might decide that the benefits of migrating to El Norte aren't worth the risk. In other words, Trump's style of TV-driven governing with little substance behind it might actually work here.

The question, of course, is how long it will work. Not forever, because TV will soon get bored and move on to something new no matter how much ICE tries to amp up the outrages to get ever more coverage. So maybe it buys Trump six months or a year. After that, if he really wants to cut down the flow of illegal immigration across the border, he's going to have to adopt an actually effective policy, something he hasn't yet shown an aptitude for. He's also going to have to deal with all the good Republican business owners who are going to get increasingly antsy for as long as this keeps up. They need workers, and they won't be happy if Trump gets too carried away with all this.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback slashed taxes when he took office five years ago, and since then the state's economy has, for lack of a better word, sucked. The state legislature, which eagerly supported Brownback at first, has finally gotten tired of the obvious problems the tax cuts have produced, and tried this month to raise more revenue. It almost worked, but Brownback vetoed the bill and the state senate fell just short of overturning it. So the tax cuts stay in place for now, and the Kansas budget remains enormously in the hole.

Allow me to illustrate how this has worked out using my new favorite toy, GeoFRED. Here is employment growth over the past year:

Woot! Kansas isn't in last place. It's fourth from last. Here's growth of gross state product in 2015 (the most recent year available):

Better! Kansas is 8th from last (counting Alaska, not shown). When the 2016 figures are available, maybe Kansas will move up to ninth or tenth from last.

There you have it. A picture is worth a thousand words, so that's 2,000 words I've just saved you. You're welcome.