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?

Hardline conservatives in the House aren't happy with AHCA, the Republican health care bill. It's just Obamacare with a fresh coat of paint. And they have a point:

  • When they say that AHCA tax credits are the same thing as ACA tax subsidies, they're right.
  • When they say that AHCA's community rating with a 5:1 age band is the same thing as ACA's community rating with a 3:1 age band, they're right.
  • When they say that AHCA's continuous coverage provision is the same thing as ACA's individual mandate, they're right.
  • When they say that AHCA's ban on turning down people with pre-existing conditions is the same as ACA's ban on turning down people with pre-existing conditions, they're right.
  • When they say AHCA's reliance on Medicaid for the very poorest is the same as ACA's reliance on Medicaid for the very poorest, they're right.

But moderates aren't too happy either. And they also have a point:

  • When they say that AHCA tax credits are far stingier than ACA tax subsidies, they're right.
  • When they say that AHCA's community rating with a 5:1 age band punishes old people compared to ACA's community rating with a 3:1 age band, they're right.
  • When they say that AHCA's continuous coverage provision is a pretty clunky way of implementing ACA's individual mandate, they're right.
  • When they say that AHCA's ban on turning down people with pre-existing conditions is less rigorous than ACA's ban on turning down people with pre-existing conditions, they're right.
  • When they say that AHCA slashes Medicaid support for the very poorest compared to ACA's Medicaid expansion, they're right.

You can see the problem. Hardline conservatives object to Obamacare in principle, but AHCA mostly adopts the same principles. Moderates don't care so much about how it gets done, but they object to voting for a bill that's likely to produce big electoral blowback when people figure out just how crappy it really is compared to Obamacare. There's really nothing here for anyone to like.1

Paul Ryan has tried to tap dance around this, but Andrew Prokop is the latest person to mention that Donald Trump isn't even bothering:

When Trump talks health care in public statements and in accounts of his private meetings, he keeps making the following four pretty simple points:

  1. Obamacare is a disaster that’s falling apart.
  2. If Republicans don’t pass the bill, they’ll do badly in the next election.
  3. Republicans have to pass the bill so they can move on to tax cuts.
  4. He — President Trump — and the Republican Party need this “win.”

There is no case for the American Health Care Act itself there. It’s all either political or a rote condemnation of Obamacare.

I give Trump points for having the right approach here. There's almost nothing about AHCA that would earn it passage based on the merits. There's just too much disagreement. Except about one thing: sticking it to liberals and Obamacare. Appealing to that kind of tribalism is literally the only thing that has a chance of producing enough emotional energy to overcome conservative fear of selling out and moderate fear of voter blowback.

It's likely to work, though it's encouraging that AHCA is (probably) going to pass only barely in the House. That was supposed to be the easy part. But if it's a nailbiter in the House, what chance does it have in the Senate? Probably not much, though appeals to tribalism, vindication, and party loyalty are, once again, the only plausible path to victory.

Mitch McConnell, savvy old warhorse that he is, knows this perfectly well, and that's why he wants to speed AHCA through the Senate in record time. It's either going to pass or it's not, and either way, time is not on his side. The longer AHCA festers, the more outrage and opposition it will generate. The justification for doing health care before tax reform is already gone, so if it's not going to pass, best to find out quickly and move on to the real business at hand.2

1Except for AHCA's big tax cuts for the rich, of course. Both moderates and conservatives agree about that.

2Tax cuts for the rich reform, of course.

Erin McPike was the only journalist allowed to accompany Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his recent trip to Asia. Dan Drezner points out this snippet from the profile of Tillerson that she filed:

After watching the contortions of my face as I tried to figure out what to say next, he humbly explained that he had never met the president before the election. As president-elect, Trump wanted to have a conversation with Tillerson “about the world” given what he gleaned from the complex global issues he dealt with as CEO of Exxon Mobil.

“When he asked me at the end of that conversation to be secretary of state, I was stunned.”

In other words, Trump had never met Tillerson before and knew nothing about him. Then, at the end of a single short conversation, he immediately offered him the job. I guess that shows how important Trump considers the Secretary of State. He had already interviewed a bunch of other people, he was tired of the whole thing, and people were on his case for not filling his cabinet. So he chatted with this Tillerson guy who had been sent his way and figured, sure, what the hell. He'll do.

McPike also passes along this tidbit:

Tillerson is spending his early days in Foggy Bottom “whiteboarding,” a businessy term for mapping out and remapping out org charts, strategies, and plans. And that’s one area where he believes he can make an impact.

Maybe I'm a little hypersensitive about this, but it sets off my alarms. I've always thought that big reorgs were the last refuge of weak business leaders who couldn't think of anything else to do but wanted to look like they were doing CEO-ish things. But even if I'm being too harsh about this, doing it as your first course of action before you even settle in and learn anything about the organization you're heading is definitely dumb. Nor is this the only evidence we have that Tillerson was not a great business leader:

Nine years is a long time to go without any improvement in your stock price.

Poor Donald. The other kids are always picking on him:

This is from the guy who repeatedly said the real unemployment rate was 42 percent.