Our story so far: President Trump got good reviews for his speech to Congress on Tuesday, and that made him happy. Then it all blew up thanks to revelations the next day that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had met twice with the Russian ambassador during the campaign. On Friday, Sessions recused himself from the investigation of ties between Trump and Russia, and Trump had a temper tantrum. He had finally been presidential, and now it was all down the drain. Everyone was talking about Russia again.

The next morning, still in a lather, he went to his usual playbook: hit back. But he needed something big, so he decided to accuse President Obama of wiretapping him. This took everyone by surprise, including his own staff. But it sort of worked: nobody cares all that much about Sessions anymore.

So then: did Obama order a wiretap on Trump Tower? Needless to say, Obama's spokesman says no. How about the CIA? Here is Obama's Director of National Intelligence on Meet the Press this morning:

CHUCK TODD: Let me start with the President's tweets yesterday, this idea that maybe President Obama ordered an illegal wiretap of his offices. If something like that happened, would this be something you would be aware of?

JAMES CLAPPER: ....I can't speak officially anymore. But I will say that, for the part of the national security apparatus that I oversaw as DNI, there was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president elect at the time, or as a candidate, or against his campaign. I can't speak for other Title Three authorized entities in the government or a state or local entity.

CHUCK TODD: Yeah, I was just going to say, if the F.B.I., for instance, had a FISA court order of some sort for a surveillance, would that be information you would know or not know?

JAMES CLAPPER: ....I would know that.

CHUCK TODD: If there was a FISA court order on something like this...

JAMES CLAPPER: Something like this, absolutely.

CHUCK TODD: And at this point, you can't confirm or deny whether that exists?

JAMES CLAPPER: I can deny it.

CHUCK TODD: There is no FISA court order?

JAMES CLAPPER: Not to know my knowledge.

CHUCK TODD: Of anything at Trump Tower?

JAMES CLAPPER: No.

OK, but does the FBI agree? Here's the New York Times:

The F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, asked the Justice Department this weekend to publicly reject President Trump’s assertion that President Barack Obama ordered the tapping of Mr. Trump’s phones, senior American officials said on Sunday....Mr. Comey’s request is a remarkable rebuke of a sitting president, putting the nation’s top law enforcement official in the position of questioning Mr. Trump’s truthfulness.

....It is not clear why Mr. Comey did not issue the statement himself. He is the most senior law enforcement official who was kept on the job as the Obama administration gave way to the Trump administration. And while the Justice Department applies for intelligence-gathering warrants, the F.B.I. keeps its own set of records and is in position to know whether Mr. Trump’s claims are true. While intelligence officials do not normally discuss the existence or nonexistence of surveillance warrants, no law prevents Mr. Comey from issuing the statement.

Assuming Clapper and Comey are telling the truth, we can say that (a) there was no FISA warrant and (b) President Obama didn't order Trump's phone to be tapped. That still leaves open the possibility that the FBI got an ordinary wiretap warrant as part of a criminal investigation, which neither Obama nor Clapper would know about.

This whole thing is completely, batshit crazy. Everyone knows that Trump is just making stuff up: He saw an article in Breitbart and decided to throw some chum in the water. The White House has even confirmed this. But the press has to report it anyway because the president said it, and Republicans in Congress will allow the craziness to continue because they don't care. They just want to repeal Obamacare and get their tax cut passed. So Trump can do anything he wants and get endless publicity for it, with no pushback except from Democrats. And nobody cares what Democrats say.

The Trump presidency gets loonier by the day. It's like one of those TV shows where they have to keep upping the ante to keep viewers interested. Trump started his presidency with his childish temper tantrum about crowds at his inauguration, but that seems like small beer now. To get any attention these days, he needs way more. So how about a childish temper tantrum that accuses the former president of ordering his phone tapped?

How far can this go? I'm stumped. Every time Trump is in a bad mood, something like this happens. And since Trump is in a bad mood whenever he isn't being universally praised, this stuff is going to keep happening forever. Are tax cuts and Obamacare really worth so much to Republicans that they're OK with having this ignorant, short-tempered child in the White House for the next four years? I mean, maybe nothing serious will happen during that time, and we'll be more-or-less OK. But what about the chance that something serious does happen and Trump does some real damage to the United States or to the world?

Is it really worth it taking that chance? Just for some tax cuts?

I was looking forward to the next White House press briefing, knowing that whoever ran it would be inundated with questions about President Trump's dimwitted suggestion that President Obama had him wiretapped. That would be fun! But I underestimated the cleverness of Sean Spicer:

In a statement from his spokesman, Mr. Trump called “reports” about the wiretapping “very troubling” and said that Congress should examine them as part of its investigations into Russia’s meddling in the election.

“President Donald J. Trump is requesting that as part of their investigation into Russian activity, the congressional intelligence committees exercise their oversight authority to determine whether executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016,” Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said in the statement.

No comment until the "investigation" is finished! That's brilliant. I don't know if it will work, but it's brilliant. I wonder how aggressive the press corps will be about calling out this obvious artifice?

Catherine Rampell notes a contradiction:

This is easily explained. First, Republicans routinely try to cut the IRS enforcement budget as a favor to the rich, who dislike being audited. Second, Trump's budget, like his tweets, is a showpiece for his fans, not a serious document.

See, Congress is going to ignore Trump's budget, and he knows it. However, he wants credit for having the guts to shake things up and propose big cuts. This will impress his base, which naively assumes that things like official budget documents are serious stuff. What's more, years from now, when we're running monster deficits thanks to Trump's tax cuts, he'll be able to say that he tried to cut the budget, but couldn't get the pathetic lifers in Congress to go along.

It's all part of the Trump Show, and we are just the audience.

President Trump has been promising a health care plan for months now. But when will we have it? Let's roll the tape:

January 15: "It’s very much formulated down to the final strokes. We haven’t put it in quite yet but we’re going to be doing it soon."

February 5: "I would like to say by the end of the year at least the rudiments but we should have something within the year and the following year."

February 16: "We're doing Obamacare, we're in the final stages. So, we will be submitting sometime in early March, mid-March."

February 27: "We have come up with a solution that's really, really, I think, very good."

So we've gone from immediately to 2018 to mid-March to all done. Today, however, Politico reports that in reality, Trump has no plan at all: "His team has signaled to House Speaker Paul Ryan that they will embrace his health care bill next week, and aides hoped to get a marked-up bill ready."

Since the House bill is apparently what we're going to get, it's worth repeating something I wrote a few months ago. After describing both Obamacare and Ryancare in broad strokes, I noted that their foundations were basically the same:

If you haven't yet noticed what this all means, let me spell it out. The key parts of Obamacare and Ryan's plan are the same. They both (a) rely on private insurance, (b) require insurance companies to cover people with preexisting conditions, (c) encourage people to buy insurance continuously by penalizing them if they don't, (d) provide billions of dollars in federal subsidies to make insurance affordable for low-income households, and (e) rely on Medicaid for the very poorest.

As liberals have been pointing out forever, any kind of health care plan has to have three parts:

  • Protection for pre-existing conditions at a reasonable price, so everyone has access to insurance.
  • Some kind of incentive for everyone to buy insurance, so insurance companies have plenty of healthy people to balance out the sick people.
  • Subsidies so that poor people can afford coverage.

Sure enough, Ryancare has all those things, just like Obamacare. There are differences in the details, but those don't matter very much. What does matter is the difference in cost. Obamacare provides subsidies of about $100 billion per year, while Ryancare provides...something much less. We don't know exactly how much less yet, but certainly less than half of Obamacare, maybe as little as a quarter. This is what makes Ryancare useless, not its overall structure, which is fairly workable. The working poor and the working class can only barely afford insurance even with Obamacare's subsidies. They won't come close with Ryancare's.

But the rich will get a big tax cut, and the middle class will get a nice break on their health insurance. In short order, however, interstate deregulation will almost certainly lead to individual insurance becoming all but useless, and the individual insurance market will probably collapse fairly soon after that. Alternatively, it might collapse even before Ryancare goes into effect, as insurers bail out on Obamacare (why bother with it if it's just going away soon?) and conclude that they can't make money on Ryancare either.

See? It's not so complicated after all. I imagine this is what Paul Ryan has wanted all along.

I was reading something yesterday about President Trump's desire to speed up FDA approvals for new drugs, so I decided to check: how long does FDA approval take these days? Here are the numbers over the past decade:

I've used a 3-year rolling average to smooth out the spikes, but the trend is pretty obvious. In the past ten years, the time to approve new drugs has been cut in half and the approval rate has tripled. Note that this is only for "standard" drugs, not "priority" drugs, so it's not contaminated by special treatment given for certain lifesaving compounds.

I'm sympathetic to arguments that our narrow escape from the thalidomide disaster of the early 60s traumatized FDA scientists, and they overreacted by making approvals too hard. The problem is that the lesson of thalidomide approval in Europe isn't that approvals were done too quickly, it's that approvals shouldn't be based on handwaving from pharmaceutical companies. As long as the testing regimen is rigorous enough, there's no reason that approvals shouldn't be done in a timely way.

That said, how much faster does Trump want approvals to go? A recent study suggests that the average FDA approval time is now considerably faster than Europe's, and that "the vast majority" of new drugs were first approved for use in the United States:

If anything, the FDA may have become too aggressive. They've made some far-reaching reforms in only a decade. Ten years from now, the chart to look at will be a comparison of drug catastrophes before and after this change.1

1I don't mean this in a snarky way. There's no cosmic "right answer" for how fast new drugs should be approved. It's all a matter of how much risk we're willing to take vs. how long we're willing to delay potentially effective therapies. A decade from now, we'll need to look back and see just how much extra risk, if any, the FDA has introduced into the system.

It's Saturday. I figured I'd sleep in and eat breakfast before I checked in on the news. After all, how much can happen on a Saturday morn—

Oh FFS. Fine. Let's hear the evidence:

Then, just to show how serious this is, an hour later Trump tweets about Arnold Schwarzenegger's "pathetic" ratings on Celebrity Apprentice. Then it's off to the golf course.

So what's going on? Did Obama really tapp Trump Tower during the sacred election process? I hope so! If he did, it would mean a judge had found probable cause that Trump had committed a crime of some kind.

Alternatively, it could mean that the FBI or the NSA was listening to a foreign phone call and Trump was on the other end. That would be great too.

Or, of course, Trump might be full of shit. Sadly, this is the most likely possibility. But you never know. Maybe there's some real dirt here and Trump is trying to get ahead of it. When it leaks, he'll try to convince everyone that the real issue is all the illegal leaks. Or the Nixonian/McCarthyite use of wiretaps. Or the fact that Obama is a sleaze, which is guaranteed to excite the base.

In any case, our next White House press briefing should be interesting, don't you think?

UPDATE: Hmmph. Breitbart News ran a story yesterday summarizing a Mark Levin radio show that outlined a bunch of stuff that's already been reported, including the fact that a FISA warrant was obtained to monitor the communications of some Trump aides:

In summary: the Obama administration sought, and eventually obtained, authorization to eavesdrop on the Trump campaign; continued monitoring the Trump team even when no evidence of wrongdoing was found; then relaxed the NSA rules to allow evidence to be shared widely within the government, virtually ensuring that the information, including the conversations of private citizens, would be leaked to the media.

Is that it? The Washington Post reports that the Breitbart story "has been circulating among Trump's senior staff." How boring.

Just as I thought that Hilbert and Hopper had given up on sleeping with each other, suddenly they've decided to occupy the pod together. This mostly happens when Hopper gets in the pod and then Hilbert asserts his ownership rights1 by jumping on top of her. In the past, Hopper would usually just vacate. It wasn't worth the trouble of staying. But lately she's been holding her ground. For at least a little while each day, the pod is just an adorable mound o' cats.

1In fairness, it is his pod, by right of tenancy. Hopper never really liked the pods that much, but Hilbert has been a faithful pod companion on my desk ever since we brought him home.

I got curious about NATO spending today. We know that most NATO countries don't come close to meeting their goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, and we know that past presidents have all urged them to spend more. Have they at least done that? Nope:

By my reckoning, only six of the 22 countries that are below the 2 percent goal spend more on defense today than they did in 2009: Luxembourg, Norway, Romania, Turkey, Latvia, and Lithuania. I guess we'll see how President Trump does at fixing this.

Donald Trump, three days ago on national TV:

We have cleared the way for the construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines, thereby creating tens of thousands of jobs. And I’ve issued a new directive that new American pipelines be made with American steel.

Donald Trump, in a quiet update delivered today via a spokeswoman:

The Keystone XL Pipeline is currently in the process of being constructed, so it does not count as a new, retrofitted, repaired or expanded pipeline.

Impressive use of weasel wording, Mr. President! I'm glad we got that cleared up. I guess American steel mills will benefit from Trump's executive orders as much as coal workers will.

A reader emails with a question:

The repeal-Obamacare mania has been on for years, but I have NEVER read anything about what the insurance industry is thinking or doing about it.

Neither have I! And it's damn mysterious. Obviously the insurance industry was heavily involved in lobbying for Obamacare back in 2009, and just as obviously there are parts of Obamacare they don't like. The patient pools have turned out to be sicker than they projected and insurance companies have struggled to make money on Obamacare policies. This year, however, they're finally there—or close to it. The market has shaken out, premiums have risen to CBO-projected levels, and Obamacare is probably a break-even or better prospect for the insurers who have gutted through the first three years.

What's more, like it or not, they've spent years adapting the way they do business. Everything from computer systems to physician compensation now follows Obamacare's rules. This has cost tens of millions of dollars, but now it's done. The last thing they need is to rip it all out and start from scratch.

And yet insurance companies have been surprisingly silent about the Republican plan to kill Obamacare. Do they prefer getting rid of it even if there's an upfront cost? Have they given up, and assume that repeal is a foregone conclusion that's not worth fighting? Is all their lobbying behind the scenes? It's not clear. Insurers are pretty unanimous about wanting some certainty in the rules, but aside from that, this eight-week-old story from the New York Times still describes things pretty well:

Far from reflecting the magnitude of the moment, the most prominent message from lobbyists that lawmakers saw in their first week back at work was a narrowly focused advertisement from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce....Health care professionals are not totally silent, but industries that were integral to the creation of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 are keeping their voices down as Republicans rush to dismantle it.

....Some lobbyists have tacitly accepted the likelihood that major provisions of the health law will be repealed, setting their sights instead on shaping its replacement. They fear that if they come out strongly in opposition to repealing the law, they will lose their seats at the table as congressional Republicans and the Trump administration negotiate a replacement.

Insurers spent $150 million lobbying in support of Obamacare in 2009. So far they've spent virtually nothing in 2017. I continue to be mystified by this.