I guess I was wrong last night. The New York Times says President Trump has caved in to demands to repeal the minimum set of required benefits for health care insurance:

President Trump agreed to the demands of conservative House Republicans to remove federal requirements that health insurance plans provide a basic set of benefits like maternity care, emergency services, mental health and wellness visits as he struggles to round up enough votes to pass a broad health care overhaul.

But the Washington Post reports that this still wasn't enough:

Conservative House Republicans rebuffed an offer by President Trump on Thursday to strip a key set of mandates from the nation’s current health-care law, raising doubts about whether House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has the votes to pass the bill.

....Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), asked whether the White House had made its final negotiating offer, said that if that’s the case, “They’re not going to pass the bill.”...As of mid-afternoon Thursday, 37 House Republicans — mainly Freedom Caucus members — had announced their opposition to the bill, known as the American Health Care Act.

So what do conservatives want? Here's the Post again:

Conservative lawmakers have asked to eliminate much of [Obamacare’s] Title I, which....bars companies from setting insurance rates based on a person’s sex, medical condition, genetic condition or other factors.

In other words, insurers could charge you more if you have a pre-existing condition. That would effectively kill off the Obamacare provision that requires insurers to cover everyone who applies. They'd simply price policies out of reach for people with expensive pre-existing conditions and that would be that.

Would this pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian, who has to agree that repealing Title 1 "directly affects" the budget? I doubt it. Would Mike Pence go ahead and overrule her? Maybe. Is this whole thing a debacle beyond imagining? Oh yes.

POSTSCRIPT: It's worth pointing out that if Republicans go down this road, they've essentially killed the filibuster completely. Basically, they would have set a precedent that anything can be added to a reconciliation bill—which can't be filibustered—and the vice president will overrule the parliamentarian and declare that it's OK. At that point, the Senate can include reconciliation instructions for just about anything in its annual budget resolution. As long as the president and vice president are from the same party, they can then pass anything they want with 51 votes.

Quinnipiac reports today that public approval for the Republican health care bill is a dismal 17 percent. Allow me to put this into perspective with a bar chart:

Sad.

As a public service, here are all the things Donald Trump has been right about:

  1. Sweden
  2. Anthony Weiner
  3. NATO not focusing on terrorism
  4. Brexit
  5. Election being rigged against Bernie Sanders
  6. Obama "wiretapping" him
  7. Three million illegal votes
  8. Thousands of Muslims celebrating on 9/11
  9. Beating Hillary Clinton
  10. Donna Brazile
  11. Ted Cruz's father1
  12. British spying1
  13. NATO not paying its bills
  14. Jobs statistics

Not bad, Mr. President! Maybe you could whisper in my ear who the next Super Bowl champ is going to be. I promise not to tell anyone.

1Special Trump exemption: It doesn't matter if he was right because he was just quoting other people.

Donald Trump Is Always Right

Right: The cover of this week's TIME Magazine. Left: The iconic cover from April 8, 1966 which inspired it.

Time's Michael Scherer interviewed President Donald Trump on Wednesday for an upcoming cover story. Scherer's thesis is that Trump deliberately makes unproven charges because "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."

Sure. It's as good a theory as any. As usual, I could spend the whole day just pulling out excerpts and—oh hell, let's pull out some excerpts. There's this:

You say that Ted Cruz's father was with Lee Harvey Oswald.

Well that was in a newspaper. No, no, I like Ted Cruz, he's a friend of mine. But that was in the newspaper. I wasn't, I didn't say that. I was referring to a newspaper. A Ted Cruz article referred to a newspaper story with, had a picture of Ted Cruz, his father, and Lee Harvey Oswald, having breakfast.

And this:

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 mean I don't know, I was unable to see it, because I am at meetings, but they just had a news conference talking about surveillance. Now again, it is in quotes. That means surveillance and various other things. And the New York Times had a front-page story, which they actually reduced, they took it, they took it the word wiretapping out of the title, but its first story in the front page of the paper was wiretapping. And a lot of information has just been learned, and a lot of information may be learned over the next coming period of time. We will see what happens. Look. I predicted a lot of things that took a little of bit of time. Here, headline, for the front page of the New York Times, "Wiretapped data used in inquiry of Trump aides." That's a headline. Now they then dropped that headline, I never saw this until this morning. They then dropped that headline, and they used another headline without the word wiretap, but they did mean wiretap. Wiretapped data used in inquiry. Then changed after that, they probably didn't like it. And they changed the title. They took the wiretap word out.

And finally this:

But you are saying to me now, that you don't believe the intelligence community when they say your tweet was wrong.

I'm not blaming. First of all, I put Mike Pompeo in. I put Senator Dan Coats in. These are great people. I think they are great people and they are going to, I have a lot of confidence in them. So hopefully things will straighten out. But I inherited a mess, I inherited a mess in so many ways. I inherited a mess in the Middle East, and a mess with North Korea, I inherited a mess with jobs, despite the statistics, you know, my statistics are even better, but they are not the real statistics because you have millions of people that can't get a job, ok. And I inherited a mess on trade. I mean we have many, you can go up and down the ladder. But that's the story. Hey look, in the mean time, I guess, I can't be doing so badly, because I'm president, and you're not. You know. Say hello to everybody OK?

Trump obviously prepared for this interview, and his theme was: I am always right. Seriously. Over and over he went down a list of all the things he's predicted that turned out to be true. Donald Trump is always right. Got it? Okay then.

Our acronym for the day is EHB, which stands for Essential Health Benefits. These are things which every health care plan is required to cover, and Obamacare spells out ten of them:

  1. Doctor visits
  2. Emergency room visits
  3. Hospital visits
  4. Prescription drugs
  5. Pediatric care
  6. Lab services
  7. Preventive care
  8. Maternity care
  9. Mental health care
  10. Rehabilitation services

The Republican health care bill is still having trouble getting enough votes to pass, so Paul Ryan is thinking about placating conservatives by repealing all of these EHBs. This means that a health insurer could literally sell you a policy that didn't cover doctor visits, hospital visits, ER visits, your children's health care, or prescription drugs—and still be perfectly legal. Here's a rough estimate of how much we spend nationally on each of these categories of EHB:

There are many problems with repealing Obamacare's minimum required benefits, but I'd like to list just three:

  • Oh come on. This is ridiculous.
     
  • Even if the current version of AHCA doesn't cause a death spiral, it sure would if EHBs got repealed. Insurers would assume that anyone who asks for a policy that covers one of these (former) EHBs is pretty sure they're going to need it. Naturally they'd price their policies accordingly: Worthless policies would get really cheap, but comprehensive policies would get astronomically expensive. Virtually no one would be able to afford them.
     
  • There's a good chance that repealing the EHBs would not only produce crappier insurance policies, but would also cost the government more money. Think about it. Every year AHCA provides you a tax credit for health insurance. You might as well use it, right? So insurers would all compete to offer policies that cover almost nothing but cost exactly $2,000 or $3,000 or $4,000. Everybody would sign up for one, because it's free so they might as well. So instead of, say, 10 million people using the tax credits, 30 million would. These policies wouldn't do squat, but Uncle Sam has to pay for them anyway—and now he's got to pay for three times as many of them.

This is all pretty straightforward stuff, and it's hard to believe that Ryan would go down this catastrophic road. Enough's enough. If I had to guess—and we might well know the answer before I wake up on Thursday—I'd say that Ryan tries to buy off the conservatives by taking maternity benefits off the EHB list and leaving everything else alone. After all, it's maternity care that really seems to be a burr in the ass of the Freedom Caucus folks.

Why? Because they're knuckle-draggers. It's hard to put it any other way. They figure that being pregnant is solely a woman's responsibility and there's no reason men should have to help pay for it. Really. I'm not joking. What can you even say to people so terminally dimwitted?

CNN has some breaking news:

The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton's campaign, US officials told CNN....The FBI is now reviewing that information, which includes human intelligence, travel, business and phone records and accounts of in-person meetings.

....One law enforcement official said the information in hand suggests "people connected to the campaign were in contact and it appeared they were giving the thumbs up to release information when it was ready." But other U.S. officials who spoke to CNN say it's premature to draw that inference from the information gathered so far since it's largely circumstantial.

Apparently this is all "raising suspicions" among counterintelligence officers about ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

If everything we've heard today is true, members of the Trump team were (a) in frequent contact with the Russians to coordinate the release of smears against Hillary Clinton, and (b) in frequent contact with some other group of people who were under surveillance for...something. What busy beavers!

Meanwhile, Devin Nunes is pretending to be shocked that the NSA does stuff that everyone on the planet knows the NSA does. I can only assume he was hoping to distract everyone from what's really going on, the way Trump does with his tweets. But Trump is a master, and Nunes is apparently an idiot. His attempt at misdirection was so barefaced and hamhanded that he probably just made things worse.

When a big story breaks while I'm at lunch, it can be a real pain in the ass. Instead of following it in real time, I have to rush around later trying to piece together what's happened. On the other hand, sometimes this is a blessing, because by the time I get to the story it's clearer what the real issue is. I think today is an example of the latter.

For starters, here's a nutshell summary of what happened. Devin Nunes, the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, took the stage a few hours ago to declare himself "alarmed." He believes that some of Donald Trump's transition team might have been "incidentally" recorded during surveillance of foreign nationals. He won't say who. Nor will he say who the foreign nationals were, other than "not Russian." And as soon as he was done with his press conference, he trotted off to the White House to brief President Trump.

There are several problems here. First, Nunes didn't share any of this with Democrats on the committee. Second, incidental collection is both routine and inevitable in foreign surveillance. Congress has had ample opportunity to rein it in if they wanted to, and they never have. Third, if this was part of a criminal investigation, Nunes may have jeopardized it by going public. Fourth, the chair of the Intelligence Committee isn't supposed to be briefing the president on the status of an investigation into the president's activities.

This is plenty to embarrass the great state of California, from which Nunes hails. But for what it's worth, I don't think any of this is the biggest issue. This one is:

He claims to have gotten the information personally from an unspecified source, and had not yet met with FBI Director James Comey to review the raw intelligence intercepts he was provided. Why would he go public without first consulting spies to see if what he had was actually worth sharing with the public?

Oh. This is one of those deals where the Republican chair of a committee gets some information; releases a tiny snippet that makes Republicans look good; and then eventually is forced to release the entire transcript, which turns out to be nothing at all like the snippet. We've seen this gong show a dozen times in the past few years.

My advice: ignore everything Nunes said. He's obviously carrying water for Trump, hoping to drive headlines that vaguely suggest the Obama administration really was listening in on Trump's phone calls. I gather that he's succeeded on that score. For now, though, there's no telling what this raw intel really says. Eventually the intelligence community will provide analysis, and committee Democrats will get to see the transcripts too. Then we'll have a fighting chance of knowing whether it's important or not. In the meantime, everything Nunes said is literally worthless. He's not "probably right" or "probably wrong." He's nothing.

Lunchtime Photo

It's been raining around these parts. Well, not raining, really. More like sprinkling a bit now and again. Lightly sprinkling. Nevertheless, Hilbert's disgust with this intolerable situation practically oozes out of him, doesn't it?

I really don't know if this is a justified line of attack, but hoo boy, this is a headline you really don't want to see about a cabinet nominee:

Labor Secretary is turning out to be a little like being the drummer for Spinal Tap. The previous one not only had to withdraw under a hail of criticism, but he even lost his old job in the process. Now we've got a guy accused of going soft on child rapists. Maybe it's time for Donald Trump to take this whole vetting thing a little more seriously.

Politico reports that there's been some grumbling on Capitol Hill about Defense Secretary James Mattis:

Republican lawmakers and senior congressional aides said in recent interviews they’re running out of patience with Mattis' staffing decisions, which have disappointed Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee hoping to see their ideological allies elevated to senior levels in the Defense Department.

....The defense secretary has also rankled Republicans with his efforts to hire veterans of Democratic administrations, pushing unsuccessfully to bring on Michèle Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration, as his deputy.

....Defense Department veterans say the White House has put Mattis in a nearly impossible position given that a large swath of the Republican foreign-policy establishment was openly critical of Trump during the campaign. Some say that has left Mattis with little choice but to turn to Democrats and to those without a political background to fill senior posts.

Michèle Flournoy! Mattis can't possibly have been naive enough to think that would fly, can he? She's practically an icon of the failed, weak-kneed, won't-say-radical-Islamic-terrorism Democratic national security establishment. Plus she has one of those chi-chi French accents in her name!

But I guess I feel a little sorry for Mattis. On the one hand you have Democrats. On the other hand, you have Republican foreign policy pros who almost unanimously disparaged Donald Trump during the campaign. On the third hand you have Republican hacks. Congress hates the first, Trump hates the second, and Mattis won't tolerate the third. Who's left for the poor guy?