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President Donald Trump has picked one of the military’s leading warrior-scholars to restore order to the National Security Council -- but also one who has staked out a decidedly more hawkish position on Russia and gone out of his way to assert that the war against terrorism must not morph into a war against Islam.
Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump's newly named replacement for ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, is considered one of the Army’s top intellectuals. When he was a young major he published a best-selling book about failed military leadership during the Vietnam War and later went on to help pioneer counterinsurgency operations in Iraq.
The first active-duty officer to hold the post since Colin Powell under President Ronald Reagan, he has also attained legendary status in military circles for his willingness to buck conventional wisdom.
It is a pedigree that might soon come in handy in his new post as the top national security policy official in the Trump White House.
McMaster is currently the director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, where his job has been to figure out what the Army should look like in 2025 and beyond. He has placed particular emphasis on preparing to counter the kind of tactics and weapons that Russia, which he considers a rising threat to global stability, has used in its incursion in Ukraine.
This emphasis could put him at odds with Trump, who says he wants to improve relations with Russia and has expressed little concern about its aggressive behaviors in Eastern Europe and contends that Vladimir Putin can be bargained with.
But McMaster's views will likely help build bridges with hawks in Congress who have been some of Trump’s fiercest Republican critics.
“I give President Trump great credit for this decision, as well as his national security cabinet choices,” Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement after the announcement. “I have had the honor of knowing [McMaster] for many years, and he is a man of genuine intellect, character, and ability. He knows how to succeed.”
McCain added that he “could not imagine a better, more capable national security team than the one we have right now.”
Trump announced the selection Monday at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, flanked by McMaster and Keith Kellogg, a retired Army lieutenant general who was Flynn’s chief of staff and is set to stay on under McMaster.
“He’s a man of tremendous talent and tremendous experience,” Trump said of his new national security adviser. “I watched and read a lot over the last two days. He is highly respected by everyone in the military and we’re very honored to have him.”
McMaster faces a daunting challenge trying to right the ship following the rocky tenure of Flynn, who departed after it became clear he misled Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of his pre-inauguration contacts with Russia’s ambassador.
Trump’s first pick to replace Flynn, Ret. Vice Adm. Bob Harward, turned down the job -- in part, according to an individual familiar with his thinking, because he wasn’t given assurances he would be able to select his own staff and have autonomy from Trump's close-knit political advisers-- led by Steve Bannon, who Trump elevated to a permanent position on the National Security Council, and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday that Trump had given McMaster “full authority” to hire “whatever staff he sees fit."
But Philip Carter, a defense analyst at the Center for a New American Security, said McMaster will be tested to try to “impose order and discipline on a White House national security structure and process that has seen neither since Election Day.”
“This challenge will be particularly hard given the political winds within the White House, and the fact that McMaster comes to the White House as an outsider and relative political neophyte,” Carter said.
Retired Lt. Gen. Dave Barno, who has known McMaster for years, said the new national security adviser is a hard-charging and forceful personality who grasps the political challenges he will face in addition to the national security ones.
“He’s going to have to build a relationship with the boss, get in to see the boss,” said Barno. “There’s no question something he will do daily is tell the boss hard things that he doesn’t necessarily want to hear. And I think the president hired him with that expectation.”
McMaster, though, is already winning praise from GOP defense hawks on Capitol Hill.
"H.R McMaster is one of the finest combat leaders of our generation and also a great strategic mind,” Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas said in a statement. “He is a true warrior scholar, and I'm confident he will serve both the president and the country well."
Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, called him “quite possibly the single most talented 3-star in the U.S. military today.”
“He is accomplished across wide domains of military operations as well as integrated political-military challenges like counterinsurgency warfare in general, and fighting corruption in Afghanistan in particular,” O’Hanlon said. “He is affable and likeable and charming but not afraid to challenge and provoke.”
McMaster’s book — “Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam” — is considered a key text of the military’s role in the Vietnam War. He wrote it as a major as part of his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
He served in the first Gulf War as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He played a key role with retired Gen. David Petraeus in re-writing the Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency operations — pioneering the “clear, hold, build” strategy of clearing a town with U.S. forces and then building up local security forces to maintain control.
Petraeus, in a statement to POLITICO, called McMaster "a truly strategic thinker and a great team builder with superb organizational skills."
"I was privileged to have him lead three major strategic reviews during the Surge in Iraq and then to establish the task force on anti-corruption during the Surge in Afghanistan. He is exceedingly well qualified to serve as National Security Adviser," he added.
McMaster was even mentioned by President George W. Bush in a 2006 speech about the war in Iraq, with Bush quoting the then-colonel’s description of Al Qaeda’s brutality.
But McMaster is also known for a willingness to ruffle feathers — and sometimes run afoul of his superiors. He was twice passed over for promotion from colonel to brigadier general before Petraeus insisted his success in Iraq be recognized, author Mark Perry wrote in POLITICO Magazine last year.
In a nod to the potential tensions that could emerge between McMaster and Trump on Russia, the new national security adviser has warned the U.S. is losing its potential edge against Russia in land warfare.
McMaster led a secret Army study of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, which was designed to figure out how the Army should adapt to Russia’s military advances.
“It is clear that while our Army was engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia studied U.S. capabilities and vulnerabilities and embarked on an ambitious and largely successful modernization effort,” McMaster told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year. “In Ukraine, for example, the combination of unmanned aerial systems and offensive cyber and advanced electronic warfare capabilities depict a high degree of technological sophistication.”
In another departure from some of the rhetoric of Trump and Flynn, McMaster has sought to separate the depravity of Islamic terror groups from the wider religion.
For example in a recent speech at the Virginia Military Institute, he said, “We will defeat today's enemies, including terrorist organizations, like [the Islamic State], who cynically use a perverted interpretation of religion to incite hatred and justify horrific cruelty against innocents.”
He joins an administration that includes many retired generals, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.
Some defense analysts remain concerned about what they see as the militarization of the national security apparatus.
“Like Mattis, McMaster's appointment commands great respect because of his military record, but also raises civil-military relations questions,” Carter said. “This continues a pattern of President Trump using military personnel and institutions to do political things. One of McMaster's great challenges will be to resist Trump's further politicization of the military, and do so while on active duty.”
But Max Boot, a conservative military scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations and a longtime critic of Trump, spoke for many so-called "Never Trumpers" in the Republican Party.
"McMaster is one of the most impressive army officers of his generation — a rare combination of soldier and scholar," Boot said. "I cannot imagine a better choice for national security adviser."
Yet, like many he also has doubts that McMaster can succeed if Trump does not moderate his rhetoric and insists on giving both Bannon and Kushner their own foreign policy portfolios.
"Not even the most talented individual will succeed in that job as long as Bannon and Kushner continue to run their own foreign policies and as long as Trump continues to make outlandish statements questioning basic American commitments and valued allies."
Connor O'Brien and Michael Crowley contributed to this report.
Milo Yiannopoulos lost his keynote speaking slot at the Conservative Political Action Conference after tapes surfaced of the right wing provocateur and senior Breitbart editor advocating for sexual relationships between “younger boys and older men.”
“Due to the revelation of an offensive video in the past 24 hours condoning pedophilia, the American Conservative Union has decided to rescind the invitation,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the group which sponsors CPAC, in a statement Monday afternoon. The group called Yiannopoulos to “further address these disturbing comments,” but defended its original decision to invite him as a nod to “the free speech issue on college campuses.”
The statement went on to declare that CPAC does not endorse “everything a speaker says or does.”
President Donald Trump, along with Vice President Mike Pence, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, will be headlining this year’s event, along with top White House aides Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus. But the Milo controversy quickly threatened to taint the event and raised questions about what it would mean if other speakers still attended.
CPAC organizers had a conference call at 1 p.m. on Monday to discuss the controversy and how to address it, according to a GOP source familiar with the matter. The decision to disinvite Yiannopoulos was unanimous and did not even need to be deliberated, the person said. Among those on the call were ACU board members Amy Frederick, Bob Beauprez, Mike Rose, Matt Smith, Matt Schlapp and Becky Norton Dunlop, along with Vice Chair of the ACU Foundation Millie Hallow.
The board only learned about the controversial video when it surfaced over the weekend, the source said, and it considered Yiannopoulos’ apology, posted to Facebook on Sunday night, to be inadequate.
Another GOP source familiar with the situation said Schlapp “understood this was spiraling out of control.”
Yiannopoulos was to discuss free speech on college campuses at the event.
Yiannopoulos, a senior editor at the conservative Breitbart News, is no stranger to controversy, but the CPAC's recent embrace of the crusading anti-political correctness provocateur has been discomfiting to some conservatives. Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter after stirring up online harassment of Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones. And a planned Yiannopoulos event at the University of California, Berkeley was recently canceled when protests against him turned violent. The incident prompted Trump to threaten Berkeley with a loss of federal funds.
“An epidemic of speech suppression has taken over college campuses,” Schlapp told the Hollywood Reporter of Yiannopoulos’ scheduled appearance after it was initially reported. “Milo has exposed their liberal thuggery and we think free speech includes hearing Milo’s important perspective.”
In a statement posted on Facebook on Monday afternoon, Yiannopoulos said he “deeply regret[s]” the way his comments were interpreted, and stressed that he is “horrified by pedophilia” and said he has “devoted large portions of my careers as a journalist to exposing child abusers.”
“I am a gay man, and a child abuse victim,” he wrote. “My own experiences as a victim led me to believe I could say anything I wanted to on this subject, no matter how outrageous. But I understand that my usual blend of British sarcasm, provocation and gallows humor might have come across as flippancy, a lack of care for other victims or, worse, ‘advocacy.’”
Still, he insisted that the tapes were “edited deceptively” and that he does not “advocate for illegal behavior.”
“I am certainly guilty of imprecise language, which I regret,” he wrote.
Schlapp said in his statement that the Facebook post was “insufficient.”
Planning for the event usually starts about nine months in advance, said Gregg Keller, a former executive director of ACU. Still, it is virtually impossible to vet everything that every speaker has said on various topics, he said.
"The average person who sees this...looks at this and says how the hell do you not know about something like this?” he said, but added that even knowing Yiannopoulos’ controversial past, it would be difficult to vet all of his statements.
Some prominent conservatives seemed to suggest that CPAC had provoked the maelstrom by tying itself to such a controversial figure.
“The Milo Test,” wrote Charlie Sykes, a conservative former radio host who has written critically of the Republican Party since the rise of Trump. “Anti-Semitism, ok. Racism, ok. Alt Right, ok. Advocacy of pedophilia? Is THAT the bridge too far?”
If you think of Donald Trump’s presidency as a 48-minute NBA game, we’re only at the one-minute mark. So how come after just one tumultuous month of scandals, protests, unprecedented controversies and unfathomable tweets, it already feels like we’re heading into overtime?
It’s hard to believe it’s been just 31 days since Trump delivered his dystopian inaugural address promising to stop all the “American carnage.” He’s launched a full-court press on Washington ever since, shredding its norms, trashing his enemies, dominating the national narrative with a whirlwind of activity and incendiary rhetoric. He’s clashed with Mexico’s president, Australia’s prime minister, “so-called” judges, his Celebrity Apprentice successor, Democratic leaders, Nordstrom, and especially us jackals of the news media, “the enemy of the American people.” He’s fired acting attorney general Sally Yates, who refused to defend Trump’s executive order on refugees, and national security adviser Michael Flynn, who lied about his dealings with Russia. Trump himself has also told whoppers about the size of his inaugural crowd, which was nowhere near the largest ever; the U.S. murder rate, which is nowhere near a 45-year high; his Electoral College victory, which was nowhere near the largest since Ronald Reagan’s; the 3 million illegal voters who supposedly tried to prevent that victory, but do not exist; and the mass protests at the airports after his refugee order, which, come on, Mr. President, were definitely not caused by a Delta computer glitch.
Americans voted narrowly for change, and change has arrived bigly. The Republicans who now control Washington are on a mission to undo just about everything President Barack Obama did. And their leader is the polar opposite of No-Drama Obama, a volatile TV star who seems to combine the media flair of Meet the Kardashians with the management chops of The Office with the emotional maturity of BoJack Horseman. But this isn’t reality TV. This is reality. While the internet was freaking out over the non-existent Bowling Green Massacre and a White House statement about the Holocaust that neglected to mention Jews, the president has been making a flurry of announcements about immigration, health care, abortion, foreign policy, energy, trade and a new Supreme Court nominee. Still, in the words of NBA legend Bill Walton, never mistake activity for achievement. Most of Trump’s high-profile executive orders have resembled press releases written in legalese, signaling his desire to do big things without actually doing them. The most obvious exception is his far-reaching executive order on refugees, but the federal courts have put that one on hold. And so far, Trump has only signed two substantive pieces of legislation, both nullifying obscure Obama-era regulations that fossil-fuel industries found inconvenient. That counts as change, but by this point in his first term Obama had already passed one of the most expensive, expansive, and consequential pieces of economic and social legislation in decades, an $800 billion stimulus bill that would help end the Great Recession, launch a clean energy revolution, cut taxes for most workers, and much more.
Of course, Trump still has 47 more months to put his stamp on America and the world. He still could turn out to be a flamboyant-but-effective Hall of Famer like Dennis Rodman rather than a weird trash-talker with a limited game like Lance Stephenson. It’s just that there so many remarkable stories jumbling together and crowding each other out—was it really just two weeks ago that a Melania Trump lawsuit claimed a false news story had damaged her ability to cash in as first lady?—that it can be hard to keep track of what truly matters.
So here is the third installment of POLITICO’s Did-It-Matter-Meter, our ratings of TrumpWorld events according to the immediate substantive impact and the potential long-term importance. We tried to score every action Trump took in his first week, and Week Two was so wild we tried it again. This will be more of a overview, an effort to lay down preliminary markers until, as Trump said about his Muslim ban (which his aides denied was a ban even though he kept calling it a ban), “we can figure out what the hell is going on.” The basic theme is that Trump hasn’t really changed much policy yet, but there are constant signs of radical change to come.
The Russia House: The biggest story of Month One has been the Watergate-style questions about how much Trump and his team knew about Russia’s efforts to put him in office—and beyond that, why a president who has publicly insulted war heroes, civil rights heroes, GOP leaders and U.S. allies has always had such kind words for Vladimir Putin. The president dismissed the whole controversy as “fake news” at his rambling press conference last week, but the FBI is investigating, intelligence agencies (who perhaps recall that he has compared them to Nazis) are on the case, and even a few Republicans in Congress have called for an independent look at the Kremlin connection to the election and the administration. To return to the NBA analogy, this is the kind of foul the refs could conceivably call an ejection-worthy Flagrant Two, although it’s not clear they’ll even review the video.
This mess has already led to the ouster of retired Lt. Gen. Flynn, who called the Russian ambassador the day Obama announced sanctions over the electoral interference, then falsely denied they had discussed those sanctions. There have also been reports that several of Trump’s operatives were in touch with Russian intelligence officials during the campaign (which the White House, for what it’s worth, is denying). And there are still all kinds of lingering questions—whether the Trump campaign had anything to do with Russian hacking; whether Trump’s unreleased tax returns would reveal anything about his ties to Russia; why FBI director James Comey made such a public fuss about Hillary Clinton’s emails while keeping his agency’s Trump investigation secret; and the classic scandal query of who knew what when. It’s hard to deny that Trump often acts strangely when the topic is Russia, like his public invitation to “Russia, if you’re listening” to hack Clinton’s emails at a campaign press conference, or his “no puppet, you’re a puppet” spluttering during one of the debates.
So far, Trump has kept Obama’s Russia sanctions in place, so there hasn’t been a direct foreign policy impact, and the scandal has not yet had the paralyzing effect on Washington of Watergate, Iran-Contra or the Monica Lewinsky fiasco. But U.S. allies in Europe are deeply worried about Trump’s soft spot for Moscow. And the firing of Flynn, a potential loose cannon on an otherwise surprisingly conventional foreign policy team, could be a deeply consequential shakeup for the world.
Hiring the Best People: Flynn’s 24-day stint in the White House was only the most prominent example of the staffing problems that have plagued Trump’s first month. Trump’s supporters hoped he would run the government like a business, but at times it has felt like his human resources department needs a bailout.
His first choice to replace Flynn, retired vice admiral Robert Harward, turned down the job, which is not something prospective national security advisers usually do. His nominee for labor secretary, fast-food executive Andy Puzder, withdrew after revelations of an undocumented nanny and domestic violence allegations. His nominee for Army secretary dropped out as well. And other controversial Trump nominees barely squeaked into office. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price got only 52 votes in the Senate, budget director Mick Mulvaney just 51, and Vice President Mike Pence had to break a tie to make Betsy DeVos secretary of education after the Senate deadlocked 50-50 on her confirmation. Trump is lagging well behind the pace of his predecessors in staffing not only his Cabinet but his entire government; the Partnership for Public Service says he has only nominated candidates for 34 of the 539 key jobs requiring confirmation.
Then again, the struggles of Price, Mulvaney and DeVos to get confirmed are less significant than the fact that Senate Republicans confirmed all three of them despite unanimous opposition from Democrats and the kind of baggage (Price’s dubious stock trades, Mulvaney’s failure to pay taxes for a nanny, DeVos’s train wreck of a hearing) that have sunk nominees in the past. It’s also significant that Price, Mulvaney and DeVos—along with EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who managed to get two Democratic votes, and attorney general Jeff Sessions, who got one—are all conservative ideologues who will presumably seek dramatic rightward shifts on health, budget, education, climate and criminal justice policies. Similarly, Trump’s most important pick so far has been Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, a highly respected jurist with deeply conservative legal views that could tilt American jurisprudence to the right for decades to come. Democrats aren’t going to want him on the Court, but what they want isn’t going to matter much.
By the same token, it’s significant that Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who were easily confirmed, are widely viewed as responsible former generals who might be able to rein in TrumpWorld’s less restrained elements. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is also seen as a grownup who understands global diplomacy, even though his tenure as ExxonMobil’s CEO remains controversial. It matters for the moment that Trump is struggling to staff the executive branch, but eventually, all those empty slots will get filled. It matters more what kind of people Trump is picking to fill them. And it may matter even more that most Republicans seem willing to approve whatever people Trump asks them to approve, because congressional Republicans have a great deal of power to rein in Trump if they want to. So far, most of them don’t seem to want to.
Many liberals watching the chaos in the White House are predicting Trump’s eventual impeachment, but that can’t happen without a lot of votes from Republicans who currently seem perfectly content to back their party leader, who is still polling well among the GOP base.
Oversight Oversights: A few Republicans have expressed concern about the White House and the Russians, but a lot more Republicans—including Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House oversight committee, and Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House intelligence committee—have expressed more interest in investigating leaks to the press about the White House and the Russians. With a zeal that would make Captain Queeg blush strawberry-red, Chaffetz is still investigating Clinton’s emails, but his recent list of the 43 issues his committee plans to tackle included nothing about potential conflicts between Trump’s public duties and his continuing business interests. In fact, when Office of Government Ethics director Walter Shaub publicly questioned Trump’s conflicts, Chaffetz threatened to investigate Shaub for speaking out rather than the subject he was speaking about.
Beyond the hypocrisy of Republicans suddenly losing their ardent passion for investigating the executive branch once their party controlled it, their see-no-evil approach should give Trump the chance to run his government as he sees fit without having to worry about embarrassing investigations or confrontational hearings. That could have a huge impact on the direction of the Trump administration—and, of course, the Trump Organization.
The first lady’s legal point that the White House is a huge money-making opportunity, while spectacularly inappropriate, happened to be true. The Trump family is now uniquely positioned to monetize public service, and the signs of blurred lines are everywhere. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort has doubled the fee for membership that now includes opportunities to hobnob with the commander-in-chief. Trump’s Washington hotel is quickly becoming the go-to location for foreign diplomats to stay and spend money. Trump angrily attacked Nordstrom when it dropped his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line, an unsubtle warning to other companies doing business with the Trumps that backing off could prompt a salvo from the White House. For a decade, Trump has sought to trademark his name in China; last week, after he broke a promise to label China a currency manipulator and agreed to recognize the One China policy, his application was finally approved. A coincidence, no doubt.
This kind of thing would be less noteworthy if Trump had agreed to sell his companies or place his assets in a blind trust. Instead, he retained his ownership stake and put his sons in charge of his companies. It has been jarring to see them (and their taxpayer-funded Secret Service detail!) at the opening of a new Trump golf resort in Dubai, or schmoozing with Republican leaders at the White House. But the president and his family have made it clear that they don’t intend to worry too much about appearances, and GOP investigators have made it clear they don’t mind.
Not Much of a Passing Game: In Obama’s first month in office, he and the Democratic Congress enacted a children’s health insurance bill extending coverage to millions of kids, an anti-discrimination bill making it easier for women to sue for equal pay, and the groundbreaking stimulus. Trump and the Republican Congress have enacted just two laws affecting policy so far: one overturning an arcane anti-corruption rule from the Obama era that forced oil companies to disclose payments to foreign governments, the other killing another Obama regulation that prevented mining companies from burying streams. Their donors from the oil and coal industries will be pleased, but those moves won’t alter the trajectory of the country. It’s too early to judge how long this inactivity will last. But it’s not too early to speculate that Republicans might find it harder than they thought to wipe out the Obama legacy through legislation. During the campaign, Trump talked about repealing Obamacare on Day One, but he hasn’t put out a plan yet, and Republicans on the Hill haven’t agreed on an approach. You also hear a lot of talk in Washington about passing tax reform, an infrastructure bill and a rollback of Obama’s financial reforms—but again, there’s no evidence of progress, and the legislative clock is ticking. And it’s not clear how passionately Trump will try to herd 535 congressional cats around legislation, or whether he’ll prefer other mechanisms for getting things done.
Less Law Than Order: So far, Trump’s preferred mechanism for making a splash has been executive orders, which seem more in tune with his “I alone can fix it” mentality. To go back to the NBA, he’s a showy shoot-first point guard at heart, not a facilitator.
Trump has signed a slew of high-profile orders signaling his intention to dismantle Obama’s health care and Wall Street reforms, build his famous border wall, roll back regulations and beef up the military. But he had already signaled his intention to do all those things, and the orders do not make any of them happen. They’re mostly campaign-style rhetoric sprinkled with “hereby,” “pursuant” and other legal jargon. One order that was hyped as action on reducing crime merely announced Washington’s latest task force on reducing crime. At the start of his second week, Trump signed an order directing his national security team to devise a plan to defeat ISIS, which raised the question of why he didn’t order it in his first week—or why his team didn’t start ginning up a plan after his election.
A few of Trump’s orders did formalize significant policy moves that everyone knew were coming—withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, undoing Obama’s rejection of the Keystone pipeline and delaying an Obama rule cracking down on unscrupulous investment advisers. He also reinstated the “global gag rule” barring overseas funding to groups that provide abortions, just like George W. Bush did, except that Trump’s rule applied to all global health funding rather than just family planning funds, which could reshape foreign aid. Trump’s initial orders on immigration also packed more symbolism than impact—he needs funding from Congress to build the wall—but the symbolism was important in its own right. Trump officially labeled undocumented immigrants as “a significant threat to national security and public safety,” ordering the Department Homeland Security to provide a weekly list of their crimes and creating a new government office to attend to their victims. Trump made it clear he considers them dangerous enemies of the state.
The president’s refugee ban took that fear even further, blocking all citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries and all refugees from around the world from entering the U.S. It was his most significant policy move yet, but a district court judge issued a stay that was upheld by an appeals court, so the White House is now racing to rewrite it in a less sloppy way that doesn’t sweep up green card holders. Whatever happens in court, Trump has sent a clear message to the world that America will no longer be a sanctuary for its huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Fighting the Power: There’s no point sugar-coating Trump’s autocratic style. His bombastic efforts to delegitimize independent sources of authority that challenge him—journalists, judges, protesters, leakers, Democrats, the very concept of objective facts that he doesn’t get to certify as true—are hallmarks of strongmen trying to consolidate power. But so far, there’s no evidence that Trump has done anything or even tried to do anything beyond the legal limits of his authority. On the other hand, from the historic Women’s March the day after his inauguration to the court orders on refugees to the media reporting on Russia, there is already strong evidence that America’s countervailing forces to unchecked presidential power are mobilizing for a fight. The obvious exceptions are House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and their GOP conferences in Congress, who do not seem too keen on checking or balancing. But there have even been signs from a few Republicans like Justin Amash in the House and John McCain in the Senate that there are at least potential lines they won’t tolerate Trump crossing.
Trump rose to power by violating political norms and challenging governing institutions. His victory may have shattered some of those norms forever, but the next four years will test the resilience of those institutions. The judicial stay, the ousters of Flynn and Puzder, and the Russia bombshells from media outlets the White House calls “the opposition party” are all examples of institutions biting back.
The Fine-Tuned Machine: The chaotic process and inept drafting that spoiled the rollout of Trump’s refugee order was a reminder that incompetence could become another check on the power of this White House. Then again, the Republican convention and much of the Trump campaign was widely ridiculed as chaotic and inept; it all worked out pretty well for Trump. The future implications of the internal secrecy and power-jockeying around the refugee ban—Trump’s foreign policy team out of the loop, alt-right media impresario Steve Bannon taking the lead—might not be all that comforting for Trump’s critics, either.
Today, Bannon seems like the most powerful aide inside the White House, the driving force behind Trump’s hard-edged populist nationalism; he even engineered an executive order inviting himself to National Security Council meetings. He made the cover of TIME; Saturday Night Live has started portraying him as a Grim Reaper telling Trump what to do; the Twitterverse has dubbed him President Bannon. But there is also an establishment wing of the Trump administration, led by Vice President Pence, chief of staff Reince Priebus and other more traditional Republicans. They all know that someone else could be ascendant tomorrow—after all, Trump’s main claim to fame used to be that he liked to fire people.
So far, though, the main consequence of all these internal power struggles seems to be policy incoherence. On foreign affairs, Pence and Mattis have been on cleanup duty, assuring allies that Trump isn’t in Russia’s pocket and doesn’t want to abandon NATO. Trump didn’t even bring Tillerson to his meeting with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after which he declared that he doesn’t care whether there’s a one-state or two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley walked that one back, but it’s clear that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, not Tillerson, is running Middle East policy. The message has been just as muddled on issues like border taxes, what to do about Obamacare, the immigration status of Dreamers who came to the U.S. as children, the refugee ban that may or not have been a ban and much more. Administration officials keep litigating and relitigating this stuff through the press, and it’s hard to tell where any of it is heading.
The WTF Factor: The overall effect of the Trump presidency so far has been a constant invasion of America’s mental space, a never-ending viral-video barrage of He Said What? His recent press conference was a perfect example: Brazen lies about the economy and the size of his electoral victory, followed by an astonishing complaint that protesters defending Obamacare “are not the Republican people our representatives are representing,” followed by a bizarre argument that the leaks coming out of his White House about Russia are real but the news stories reporting those leaks are fake, after which he mentioned that he watches CNN even though it’s just anger and hatred, a statement he then amended by saying he doesn’t watch CNN at all anymore, which by the way is untrue. Trump also attacked a Jewish reporter who respectfully tried to ask him about the rise of anti-Semitic threats; asked a black reporter if she could set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus; and said that Flynn did nothing wrong but that he fired him anyway.
It’s exhausting. And there’s always some dude in your Facebook feed haranguing you to stop focusing on this one lie because it’s just a distraction from that other lie and you’re just doing what Trump wants you to do.
Really, all lies matter. What Trump is doing is not normal. Jeb Bush called him a chaos candidate, and he’ll be a chaos president. He will say flabbergasting things all the time, like his Black History Month tribute to Frederick Douglass as “somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more,” or his SEE YOU IN COURT tweet to the judges who just ruled against his refugee ban in, obviously, court. It’s probably wise to try not to let him elevate your blood pressure every time he attacks Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings at a prayer breakfast, uses Air Force One as a campaign prop, or plays golf even though he repeatedly attacked Obama for playing golf. The point of the Did-It-Matter-Meter is to try to separate words from deeds, the fleeting rhetoric from the major policy implications. But it’s a big deal to have a president routinely saying things that sound unhinged.
It’s still early in the game, though. (Is it really only August?) Trump is still assembling his team. His approval rating is sinking, but he’s defied the polls before, and he’s defied the experts who didn’t think his game was ready for the NBA. While the president publicly insists that everything is going swimmingly—“I’m not ranting and raving,” he declared, incorrectly, during his press conference—his aides are privately much more realistic about their rocky start. Their message seems to be: Trust the Process.
Of course, that was also the message of the Philadelphia 76ers, and they still suck. But even the Sixers can’t be counted out of a game at the one-minute mark.
President Donald Trump is “dangerously naive.”
He has a “pathological unwillingness to criticize anything the Kremlin does.” He is discrediting U.S. intelligence agencies and “telling the world they can’t be believed.”
As for Trump’s refusal to disavow Russian President Vladimir Putin and the murders and poisonings of Putin critics in recent years because, as Trump put it, America has “killers” too? “I don’t think we’ve ever had a more harmful statement come out of the Oval Office than that one,” says Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, in an extensive interview for our new podcast, The Global Politico.
Schiff, a Harvard-trained lawyer who made his career by prosecuting an FBI agent caught in a sex-for-secrets trap by the Soviet Union, has been one of the leading Democrats calling for a more serious investigation of Trump’s mysterious ties to Russia. Last week, when national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign after misleading the vice president about his December phone call with the Russian ambassador, Schiff quickly demanded an expansion of the House intel panel’s probe of the 2016 election hacking to include the Flynn matter, an expansion Chairman Devin Nunes reluctantly agreed to late last week.
Now, Schiff is openly suggesting a possible cover-up in the Flynn affair. “There’s a profound question about whether he was acting on his own, or whether he was acting at the behest of the now president or others in the administration,” Schiff says. “Who else was knowledgeable that he had misled the vice president, and in doing so misled the country?”
Throughout our conversation, Schiff described Russia under Putin in terms I’ve rarely heard over nearly two decades of covering U.S. relations with the Kremlin, and almost never from a Democrat in recent years, when it was largely Republicans who criticized Putin and what they saw as President Barack Obama’s reluctance to confront Russian aggression. “Russia is a major threat to the country,” Schiff says. “They are doing their best to dismantle democratic institutions in Europe, just as they did in Russia itself. And just as they tried to do in our own country, in the election ... There’s a real confrontation with a real malignant power.”
Perhaps most striking about this kind of rhetoric is who it’s coming from, and the partisan divide it heralds for American foreign policy going forward as a new generation of Russia hawks emerges. Because Schiff is new to the outrage factory, a mild-mannered sort on Capitol Hill whose Twitter feed used to be filled with polite hearing notices and the measured policy wonkiness for which he has been known. Just about every article ever written about the California Democrat, a triathlete who keeps an extreme fitness regimen, has called him some version of “a moderate’s moderate.”
But that was before Trump and his unlikely, largely unexplained, admiration for Putin. Schiff in recent months has turned his perch on the House Intelligence Committee into a newly public role as perhaps the loudest voice on Capitol Hill pushing Republicans to investigate not only the Russian hacking of the 2016 election but also just what ties Trump and his campaign advisers may have with the Russian government whose strongman leader Trump has said he admires. Schiff tells me the panel will examine “any contacts between Russia and U.S. persons” to see whether there was “any U.S. person complicity” in the 2016 election-related hacking.
But it’s not entirely clear whether the panel will actually do so—or how effective the committee will be. Schiff and other Democrats have been rebuffed in efforts to commission a special joint investigation commission and uncertain about how much cooperation they will receive from the FBI, which is conducting its own probe of the Flynn matter as well as the broader Russia hacking during the 2016 campaign. And among House Republicans, there remains resistance to looking too closely at the dealings of a president from their own party.
While Senate Republicans, under pressure from noted Russia hawks John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have sounded a tougher note about their investigation, in the House, Nunes—who served on Trump’s transition team—has been much more skeptical. At first, Nunes refused last week to broaden the probe to Flynn, saying instead that he preferred, as the president insisted, to investigate the leaks that led to the disclosures about the Flynn call. On Sunday, Nunes went on the talk shows to cast doubt on Schiff’s insistence that the panel will look at whether and how complicit any Americans tied to Trump may have been in the Russian hacking.
“We are not going to go on a witch hunt against the American people, against American citizens,” he told CBS’ John Dickerson, insisting, “as far as I know our law enforcement authorities don’t have that information.”
Wherever the unfolding investigations around Russia, Trump and Putin lead, the swirling controversy has already had one inescapable effect in American politics: the return of Cold War-style rhetoric and ominous warnings about Russia. Three straight American presidents—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama—have started out hoping to forge a closer relationship with Putin and ending up disillusioned and barely on speaking terms.
But now, with Trump calling Putin a better leader than Obama during the campaign and the U.S. intelligence community’s finding that Russia’s election hacking was specifically aimed at boosting Trump’s chances in the presidential race, the prospects of another attempted reset of U.S.-Russia policy have taken on a darker cast. Trump acknowledged as much during his stemwinder of a news conference the other day, invoking the image of Putin observing the uproar and deciding “it’s going to be impossible for President Trump to ever get along with Russia because of all the pressure he’s got with this fake story.”
As the top Democrat on the House panel, Schiff is one of the so-called Gang of Eight, the four top leaders in both houses and four top intelligence committee members, who receive special classified briefings from the U.S. intelligence agencies that other members of Congress do not. Working together with Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel who is also part of the Gang, Schiff started sounding the alarm about Russian interference in the election early last fall.
They faced, Schiff now acknowledges, strong pushback from the Obama White House when they tried to get the administration to go public with evidence about the Russian hacking. Schiff reveals in the interview that he and Feinstein lobbied the National Security Council staff to make such a statement but were rebuffed. “There was a real reticence in the administration to talk about this publicly,” he says, especially at a time when Trump was already complaining publicly that he believed Democrats would try to rig the election for Hillary Clinton.
Instead, he and Feinstein teamed up, and on September 22, released their own statement saying there was a “serious and concerted” effort by Russia to meddle in the 2016 race—a statement confirmed by the Obama administration in October and then, after the election, by a public finding from the U.S. intelligence agencies that the hacking was aimed at electing Trump. Many Democrats today remain furious about that timetable, wondering whether Obama’s hesitant response to the hacking and unwillingness to speak out more forcefully before Nov. 8 may have inadvertently helped Trump win the presidency.
Regardless, the conversation with Schiff makes clear that there’s an entirely new politics to Russia in the U.S. today, and nowhere more so than on Capitol Hill, where historically it has been Republicans who, even long after the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago, remained much more critical of Putin’s heavy-handed rule and expansionist foreign policy across the former Soviet territory.
For the most part, they still are—and when reports circulated that Trump’s White House was considering lifting some sanctions on Russia as an early executive order, it was strong pushback from Republicans on the Hill, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, that helped to table, or at least delay, whatever plans there were; the subsequent furor over Flynn and his Russia entanglements makes that even less likely to proceed for now. Nunes nodded to that new reality—and probably to Schiff’s Russia warnings—in his comments to CBS. “There are Russia hawks now,” he said wryly, “I think there’s more Russia hawks in Congress than there are congressmen and senators.”
For Schiff and others in the newly-hawkish-on-Russia camp, there’s an explicit connection between Putin’s threatening moves and the rise of like-minded populist nationalists such as Trump in the United States and others in Europe. “We are in a new war of ideas, in which autocracy appears to be on the march, and we have to confront it,” he says.
So what about the Republicans who had in recent years been so quick to criticize Obama for being soft on Putin and warning of Russian imperial designs across Eastern Europe? The same party that applauded when 2012 nominee Mitt Romney labeled Russia the No. 1 geopolitical threat to the United States? Had his GOP colleagues, I asked Schiff, suddenly changed their minds about Russia now that Trump is promoting a different line?
His answer was as revealing about the state of play in Congress for President Trump as it was about anything having to do with foreign policy. And it suggests that while, for now, most of the GOP is not openly breaking with its combative new president, that may not always be the case.
“They haven’t changed their mind about Russia. I think they are as deeply distrustful as ever. They don’t want to cross this president yet,” Schiff says of his Republican colleagues. “They have no illusions about Vladimir Putin; none of them think he’s a friend. They all recognize the great evil that he’s doing bombing civilians in Aleppo, invading his neighbors, murdering journalists. So, I don’t think they have any new view—I don’t think they’ve been persuaded by Donald Trump that somehow Russia is now our friend.”
For the third episode of Politico Magazine’s Susan B. Glasser’s new podcast, The Global Politico, she sat down with Congressman Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. A transcript of Glasser and Schiff’s conversations, and the podcast, follows:
Well, hello. This Susan Glasser from the Global POLITICO. I’m delighted to welcome you back, and to welcome our guest today, Congressman Adam Schiff. He is the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which means he is right in the middle of one of the biggest stories in the world today; which is the question of what on earth is going on with Donald Trump’s White House, and Russia, and leaks, and alleged influence and meddling in American elections. Congressman Schiff, he joins us today from Capitol Hill.
Glasser: I’m so grateful to you for coming back on to talk with us this afternoon about, really, a crazy week, even by the standards of this one-month-old administration. So, first of all, what is your feeling about the state of play today, on where we stand with the story of President Trump, General Flynn, and the Russians?
Schiff: Well, it has been a very topsy-turvy week. And it’s still all the more bewildering because we now know that the president was informed that Mike Flynn had misled people. And that, to me, is very troubling because he was aware the vice president had misrepresented the facts to the American people. And that was okay until he was confronted with it by this story in the The Washington Post. And that was what forced the firing of Mike Flynn.
And even now, [President Trump] seems to be trying to apologize to Flynn for firing him. So the whole thing is very bewildering. How much was this designed to undermine President Obama’s sanctions on Russia for their very interference in the presidential campaign—interference which was designed to help Donald Trump?
And more, probably, we need to look at this in the context of Russian influence measures in the United States. And this gets back to the campaign. We know, of course, that Russia hacked Democratic institutions; was dumping documents. We know that they were using their paid media platforms, their RT TV, as well as thousands or hundreds of paid trolls to push fake news to try to influence social media.
But we need to know more about any contacts that the Russians had with anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign, or any U.S. persons that might have been facilitators of Russian illegal activities during the campaign. So all this is really the subject of our investigation. And our investigation, by necessity, just got broader because it now has to include Flynn’s contacts with [Sergei] Kislyak, the Russian ambassador.
Glasser: Well, tell me a little bit about the investigation. There seems to be a difference of opinion among Republicans in the Senate versus Republicans in the House. The Republicans in the Senate seem to be taking a somewhat more aggressive stance. You have the Senate majority leader saying absolutely they would need to investigate these new allegations involving General Flynn, and what exactly happened between him and Vice President Pence and President Trump.
But on the House side, where you are, your colleague, Chairman [Devin] Nunes, suggested, basically, this isn’t that much of a big deal. Do you see a partisan fight brewing over this?
Schiff: Well, I had a chance to discuss this at some length with the chairman yesterday. And we have the agreement now to look at the communications between Flynn and the ambassador as a part of our investigation. The chair has assured me that there won’t be any relevant line of inquiry that we will be denied the ability to investigate.
So, I found that encouraging. And this really ought to be, has to be, a bipartisan investigation. Russia is a major threat to the country. They are doing their best to dismantle democratic institutions in Europe, just as they did in Russia itself. And just as they tried to do in our own country, in the election. And we’re facing a major challenge from this country. They’re now violating one of the missile treaties. They’re stationing ships off our coast to spy on our naval programs, and harassing some of our ships.
So there’s a real confrontation with a real malignant power. And I think it requires us to, in a very bipartisan way, make sure that the nation is prepared; that we’re taking appropriate steps to inoculate ourselves against further meddling in our democratic affairs, as well as protecting our allies.
Glasser: Take us behind the scenes a little bit. Obviously, these are highly sensitive and confidential matters that you’re investigating. But give us a little bit of a sense of how an investigation like this proceeds. You’ve announced it—this is not a brand-new investigation. Now, its scope is being broadened somewhat to include the new allegations. But how active a probe is it? How much are the intelligence agencies cooperating with you? How much do you feel that we had the information before the election that we might have wanted to come out sooner?
Schiff: Well, the way I think we ought to do this investigation—the way, harkening back to my days as an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles—is you generally begin by gathering all of the documents. In this case, these are documents that underlie the intelligence community’s conclusion that we read publicly, in that public report about Russian involvement in the election. We want to make sure that the intelligence community got it right. We want to look at the raw intelligence, and make sure their conclusions were substantiated. But that’s only one piece of it.
We also want to look at any contacts between Russia and U.S. persons. Any U.S. person’s complicity in what took place. We know in Europe, for example, that the Russians are involved with blackmailing people; that they’re involved in extorting people, and gathering compromising material on people; in funding right-wing parties. They, you know, very much make use of indigenous citizens of those European countries to help move things in the Russian direction. And we need to find out, did they also do that here?
So it begins by gathering the appropriate information, identifying the witnesses you need to talk to, talking to those witnesses, following their leads. And you know, I think a big question for us, as we do this investigation, is will we have the cooperation of the FBI where we need it? Because we can’t replicate what they do. We can’t become our own FBI. And that means they’re going to have to share with us. Have they been investigating this? If they have, what have they investigated? What is yet to be investigated? So that we can make sure that this is thorough.
We don’t have the resources, as Senate or House committees, to be dispatching people undercover to Europe or elsewhere, to find out some of this information. So we really need to know what have they pursued already, and what remains to be done.
Glasser: You know, you’ve become increasingly vocal, in a public way as well, questioning President Trump, questioning Russia, and why it has been seeking to influence our elections. The other day, you had a tweet that caught my eye where you talked about Trump and his policy of quote-unquote “appeasement toward Russia,” and asked the provocative question of, “Why? We’re going to get to the bottom of this.” Do you think the investigation will be able to get to the bottom of what it is that really is going on between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump?
Schiff: Well, I certainly hope so. That’s going to be my aim, that we do this thoroughly, and objectively, and that we leave no stone unturned. Again, a big question is, will we get the assistance of the FBI in doing this investigation? And that will determine a lot of what we’re capable of doing.
But, you know, if you look just at the most recent allegations involving Flynn, there’s a profound question about whether he was acting on his own, or whether he was acting at the behest of the now president, or others in the administration. Who else was knowledgeable that he had misled the vice president, and in doing so misled the country?
So we certainly need to get to the bottom of that. But more broadly, we need to understand exactly how the Russians have interfered in our democracy. This is really, I think, one of the most striking developments over the last half-century; that this adversarial power succeeded in interfering, taking down our democracy, by several notches. And this is really part of their goal.
They get a lot of criticism for being an authoritarian system, and they would like nothing better than to show that the democracies, the Western democracies, are corrupt; that they’re no better than Russia. And essentially weaken the whole idea of liberal democracy.
Glasser: Based on what you know now, do you think that this interference in our elections actually made a difference, and actually did result in the election of Donald Trump?
Schiff: You know, it certainly had an influence on the election. Whether that influence was determinative, there really won’t ever be a way of knowing. Obviously, in a close election, anything could have made the difference between winning and losing. I would suspect, but this is only my own gut sense, that [FBI] Director Comey’s disclosures at the end of the campaign had as much of an influence as many of the Russian document dumps.
But you could make the argument as well that the choice of the campaigns—where they spent their money, where they focused their efforts—also were determinative. And I think all those things may be true. But of far greater significance to me than whether this was the decisive influence was the mere fact that it was an influence. And that the Russians have essentially taken off the brakes with their interference in our country.
They are far more willing to take risks now to confront us, to interfere with us. That poses some real dangers, but the biggest danger of all is if we don’t take this seriously. And right now, I think the president is dangerously naïve about Putin’s intentions and just wanting a different relationship; hoping for a different relationship has never worked with Russia, and it’s not going to work here.
Glasser: You know, one of the more jaw-dropping aspects of, obviously, a jaw-dropping story, is also President Trump’s decision to basically turn it around on the intelligence community, and go to war with them. And to say, in effect, “Pay attention to the leaks that resulted in this information about General Flynn becoming public,” rather than the underlying question. And he has consistently been very critical of the American intelligence community, notwithstanding the fact that he’s their new commander-in-chief.
You deal with these professionals all the time. You’ve been in this role during President Obama’s tenure, as well as now into the one-month-old Trump era. What are the consequences that you see playing out of Trump going to war with the intelligence community? Are they, in fact, at war with him, do you think? And how much should we be worried about leaking from them?
Schiff: You know, they’re certainly not at war with him. And there’s nothing the intelligence community would like more than to have a good working relationship with the commander-in-chief. We are the customers of the intelligence agencies. They provide their best assessments. They risk their lives. They risk other people’s lives to get us the very best information.
But of all the consumers, of all the members of Congress, the administration, the intelligence community views the president as their top customer. They pride themselves on how many of their reports make it into the president’s daily brief. That’s sort of the gold standard within the intelligence community. Did their work product become so important that it made it onto the president’s desk?
Well, of course, we know now that not much makes it onto the president’s desk, no matter how good it is. It’s watered down, sifted, simplified, filtered through—I guess it was Mike Flynn for a while, now maybe it’s Steve Bannon. We don’t know. That’s troubling enough, I think, within the intelligence community.
But now you have a commander-in-chief who shows open distain for what they do, and what they risk their lives for. And I just think that’s enormously destructive. The president ought to be relying on their work. And not taking it uncritically, but recognizing its incredible value. They’re the best at what they do in the world, and he’s going to need that information to make good judgements.
The other thing is, when he does have to make a judgment, when he done have to make a decision about what the Iranians are doing, or the North Koreans, or the Houthis, he’s going to be doing that on the basis of intelligence. And he’s going to want not only our country, but other countries, our allies, to have confidence in what he says. And if he’s discrediting our intelligence agencies, he’s pretty much telling the world they can’t be believed.
And if he’s making false statements continually like, “Millions of undocumented immigrants are voting,” then he’s not going to be believed. And we need a commander-in-chief that is credible. And so, there are a lot of risks here. You know, you can add to them, at the moment, a very dysfunctional administration, and a dysfunctional National Security Council.
Glasser: Is this is the kind of worry that you’re already hearing articulated by some of the folks that you deal with in the intelligence community? How worried are they about the morale of their agency? What are they telling you?
Schiff: There are a lot of concerns about where this new president is coming from, and what kind of relationship he’ll have with the intelligence community; whether he will value what they do, and what this will mean for the country. You can imagine, if part of your job is recruiting people who put their lives on the line for America because they believe in the idea of America; they live repressive regimes, but they believe in America. And then they see things coming out of this White House that really call those beliefs into question.
You know, the Muslim ban, for example, was very destructive to our standing in the world, and our relationships with a lot of allies, and our ability to recruit people. So there’s a lot of consternation with the intelligence community. I mean, how often does your primary customer compare you the Nazis? So I am very concerned about it. I hope there’s a change. I hope maybe General Mattis gets the situation under control, or the new national security advisor. But I suspect the problem will be, at the end of the day, the man at the top. And unless he grows in this job, it’s going to be a very rocky four years.
Glasser: You know, congressman, it’s hard to believe we’re talking about four years. It’s only been four weeks, and it’s pretty exhausting, isn’t it?
Schiff: It is.
Glasser: Well, listen, this is probably as good a place as any to pick back up with the conversation, which we started in your office on Capitol Hill the other day. You know, I think you had really a global context for Putin, and Russia, and why it is you’re so concerned about these events. It’s probably an important point for our listeners to hear right now.
Schiff: It’s not solely an issue of Russia’s hacking into our election; as serious and as staggering as that was, it’s not simply the relationship between Trump and Putin, but rather, I think we are in a new war of ideas, in which autocracy appears to be on the march, and we have to confront it. We need really strong leadership in the free world.
You see in many parts of Europe a retreat to nationalism, a de-emphasis on human rights. You see in the countries of our NATO allies the imprisoning of journalists. We’re seeing an awful turn away from representative government, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. And so, I view this in that context. And there’s a lot to be concerned about. This president has a pathological unwillingness to criticize anything the Kremlin does. Now, it may be as simple as the fact that Putin says nice things about him, that the Russians effectively helped him get elected president, and he has a world view where you’re either for him or against him, and the Kremlin was for him.
It may be as simple as that, or there may be more to it involved than that, and one of the things that we intend in the investigation we’re doing in the Intelligence Committee is to find out what were the—all the tools and all the vectors that the Russians used to influence our election. Clearly, they were hacking information; clearly, they were dumping information; clearly, they had their paid media platforms there—Russian TV, their Sputnik. They had paid media trolls, but was there more? Was there direct interaction with the Trump campaign or people associated with the Trump campaign?
All of these things, I think, are part of a thorough and objective investigation, which is what we’re setting out to do. I hope we will do it, and I think it couldn’t be of greater significance. We’re going to see the Russians do this again. We’re going to see them try in Germany, in France, in other European countries. They may try again here in the United States, so we need to fully understand just how—what devices, what levers they’re pulling, so we can help our allies defend themselves, and so we can defend ourselves in the future.
Glasser: You know, I think that’s the thing that has a lot of close observers of the Russian relationship—you know, perhaps even more concerned than the general public—is that people like you who’ve been read into the intelligence, have this heightened level of concern and conviction that, in fact, the Russians have really mounted what you called a crime just now, but clearly is a new level of cyber-attack into our politics and those of our allies, than anyone had really contemplated before. Why do you think it is that the rest of the political class in Washington hasn’t really caught up with this level of alarm? Is it really because you’ve seen things that are just so much more harrowing than what are out there publicly already, or is it simply a failure of, you know, thinking?
Schiff: I don’t think it’s a function of any particular information or insights that the Gang of Eight have that others don’t have. We may have [a] better understanding of the basis of some of the sources and methods of gathering the intelligence, but the basic fact that the Russians hacked our election, that they dumped documents, that they did this with the motivation of hurting Clinton and helping Trump, that’s all now very public.
And that ought to be enough to mobilize people. I think part of the reason why it hasn’t been sufficiently alarming gets back to something President Obama said in the press conference he held just a couple weeks before the turnover of authority, where he talked about the Russian hacking. And he said that we have become so—such—so vigorously partisan that it is having the effect that even the party of Ronald Reagan would somehow excuse, overlook, indulge the fact that the Russians are hacking into our election.
That because it helped the GOP in this election, that therefore it’s okay. And that’s quite staggering. It says a lot about just how polluted our political system has become, that concerns of partisanship would be elevated to the degree where we would be accepting of foreign intervention. Now, one of the things that I think Democrats need to take responsibility for is we knew the Russians were doing this before the election. Senator Feinstein and I, you might recall, we got out ahead even of our own administration and intelligence community made public attribution, but the intelligence community soon thereafter, in October of last year, said very publicly, “The Russians are doing this.”
We Democrats were not successful in persuading the American people why they should care. And that’s something that we have to confront. I think it’s something that is still a problem.
Glasser: Well, you know, it’s interesting. So, you pointed out—I’ll toot your horn because, you know, you were pretty modest there. September 22nd, you and Senator Feinstein, very early in the campaign when you think of all that happened later, put out your joint statement saying that there was a serious and concerted effort, quote-unquote, by the Russians to influence it. You had no sort of question marks attached to that statement. Tell us a little bit the back story. Why did you put it out at that point so early? What was the response you got when you tried to get the Obama White House to do something more before the election?
Schiff: Well, Senator Feinstein and I were very concerned that here you had a foreign adversarial power hacking our election, trying to influence our election, and the American people really fully weren’t brought into the confidence of the administration. They weren’t told what was happening, and we thought this was information that the American people really needed to have; that they could do with that information as they will, but they need to be trusted with the facts.
I think there was a real reticence in the administration to talk about this publicly for a couple reasons. Part of it was they didn’t want to be seen as putting their hand on the scale, as interfering or doing this because they wanted to impact the results of the election, so I think there was a hypersensitivity doing anything that might be perceived as political.
And the other thing is, I think they were concerned about playing into the narrative that the election was rigged, calling into question the results of the election. They thought somehow that this would magnify that problem, and then finally, they, I think, were concerned about Russia escalating. Now, from my own point of view, and I think Senator Feinstein shared that point of view, to the degree that people, including Donald Trump, were claiming the election was going to be rigged, this, I think, was important information for the American people to have.
I think it would have been far more perilous to only tell the American people after the election, “Hey, the Russians were involved. The Russians did this; we knew it, we didn’t tell you.” I think that would have been a far bigger problem. So, I never subscribed to that, and I thought that the danger of escalation was frankly greater if we did nothing, said nothing than if we called out Russia on what it was doing.
Glasser: But it’s fair to say that you and Senator Feinstein don’t just put out a statement like that, that you probably did try to directly convince the Obama White House to go along with something first, before you came to that?
Schiff: Absolutely. You know, we tried to get them to make attribution; ultimately, they did. We never felt it was a question over what level of evidence there was. The evidence was quite compelling and we knew that early on, so yes, we did. And in fact, we worked with the administration and the intelligence communities—community to make sure that we vetted what we were saying, that we weren’t going to say anything that would be revealing of sources and methods.
So, we wanted to do it carefully and thoughtfully, but nonetheless, it was a result of our inability at that point to persuade the administration to do it on their own.
Glasser: And the resistance was in the White House, the State Department?
Schiff: You know, I think it was at least in terms of the conversations we were having, predominantly in the White House, among the National Security Council.
Glasser: So, Obama in general—and we’ll go back to this question of the investigation right now. A lot of people are asking me, as I’m sure they’re asking you, how did we get here, right? How much do we—obviously, we still don’t really understand the nature of Trump’s feelings about Vladimir Putin, but we do understand that the American-Russian relationship has gone off track in some significant way that led to their decision to intervene in our election, well before they or anyone knew that Donald Trump would be president of the United States.
Let’s go back in time a little bit. You have been somewhat critical of the Obama administration, in feeling like perhaps it didn’t course correct quickly enough when it came to the challenges posed by Vladimir Putin. It’s my own theory that if Trump was not now the President of the United States in a way that has sort of overwhelmed all foreign policy discussions, we might be having a more critical conversation about the Obama foreign policy record, and things like Syria, for example, and Russia. What’s your view about why we ended up in this place with Putin? Was it just inevitable, or you know, were there things that we could have done differently?
Schiff: I think to some degree, it was inevitable. I think a lot of it has to do with who Putin is, and how he views the world. I think what probably catalyzed things more than anything else were the demonstrations in Russia in 2011. The Russians believe, and I think as a former KGB guy, this is very much Putin’s point of view, that the intelligence community generally and the CIA particularly, are responsible for all the color revolutions that happen all around the world.
They’re responsible for the Arab spring that—you can see the hidden hand of the CIA in everything. And this may be Putin sort of projecting what he wishes the capability of the KGB was; I don’t know. But nonetheless, I think they saw the United States’ hidden hand behind these mass demonstrations. They certainly saw Secretary Clinton, who was overtly critical of the conduct of the Russian elections.
And I think from Putin’s point of view, it’s all about preservation of the regime, and restoration of Russian greatness. And these demonstrations threatened both. There’s nothing he cares more than the perpetuation of his own rule. The only thing I think he fears that could take him down would be a collapse of the economy and popular uprising, popular demonstrations, and those demonstrations growing out of control.
So, I think he decided that he was going to take the gloves off. And I think he also decided that the best way to distract from Russian’s chronic economic problems, its demographic problems, its downward trajectory, was by foreign adventurism, kind of a well-played gambit in world history, but certainly Russian history. So, the invasion of Crimea, the deployment of troops into Syria; these are all efforts to restore Russian influence, Russian greatness.
The effort to take down our elections, to reveal infighting between the Bernie Sanders and the Hillary Clinton camps, to trumpet any problems in the United States; all of this is an effort to essentially put the Russian flawed thugocracy on a par with American democracy, which is part of the reason why it’s so grievous to me, when I see Donald Trump say things like he did the other day, when he was confronted by Bill O’Reilly, who said, “Well, Putin’s a killer.” And Trump basically said, “Yeah, but we’re not really any different, the United States.”
That is so singularly untrue and damaging to our credibility. It’s just the most incredible gift to Russian propaganda, and it just kills me that this is coming from the president of the United States. I don’t think we’ve ever had a more harmful statement come out of the Oval Office than that one, at a time when we really are in this battle of ideas with autocracy, Russia, and this trend towards nationalist concentration of power.
Glasser: You know, congressman, it’s amazing even to hear you say these things. You’re such a, you know, by temperament, a mild-mannered person. You’ve been described as a moderate’s moderate. You’ve been described as a policy wonk, and yet it feels to me that this is tapped into something, deep in your sense of outrage in a way that, you know, just looking at your Twitter feed over the last few weeks, I can almost see the progression of astonishment and anger and dismay. These are not the kind of statements, my guess is, you ever used in a long career in public life.
Schiff: That’s absolutely true. I’ve been getting a lot of feedback on my Twitter feed these days, because it is very much against type, in terms of where I come from. I certainly didn’t feel this way about George W. Bush. I haven’t felt this way about other Republican presidents. To me, this one is dangerous in a way that I didn’t feel any of the others were. All the others, I have serious policy disagreements with, but we’re not out of the mainstream.
This president is well out of the mainstream, and I think the things he says, the things he does, pose a grave danger internally. I think they just aggravate divisions in the country, and I also think that it is causing a collapse in our standing around the world. So, I’ve never been more concerned about the future of the country than I am right now, and I think that you hear that reflected in my observations on things, which are, as you say, not generally prone to hyperbole.
Glasser: Well, again, that’s what—I think that’s actually why we’re having this interview today, is that, you know, I have followed you for a long time, and just really over the last couple months, I noticed, wow, you know, Congressman Schiff—he’s a ranking member of the Intelligence Committee. Here he is becoming much more public, so, one is there sort of a Trump effect, right, which is that he’s engaged us all in this discourse on Twitter, and he’s drawn us all into that conversation. But then, two, I think in an interesting way, right, people are now speaking out in—and whether it’s protesting in the streets, or taking to Twitter in ways that are not standard for the ranking member of our Intelligence Committee to do—let me read a couple examples of these.
I think one of your aides told me that you’ve gotten perhaps the most response to President Trump’s tweet—or the other day, when he talked about the so-called judge who ruled against him on the temporary refugee ban. And you wrote, in response to that, “This so-called judge was nominated by a so-called president, and was confirmed by the so-called Senate. Read the so-called Constitution.” And you tweeted that at Donald Trump. What were you thinking when you wrote that? Is it just I’ve got to speak out?
Schiff: It is. You know, this is not the role I wanted to play, not the role I expected that I would be playing. I, like I think everyone else thought that Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election. I know my GOP colleagues were just as astonished that Donald Trump ended up winning the election. But I find myself, I think, in a very important role all of a sudden, which is, you know, helping to lead the opposition to a president who I think is—poses a real danger to the country and to our future prosperity, and to our place in the world, to how people view Americans, to whether people still look to America as the leading light and inspiration to the rest of the world, a place they hope one day to immigrate to.
So, I really feel cast in the role of having to speak out, be part of the loyal opposition, and in terms of Twitter, this is a medium that he uses to communicate, and I do believe when you’re in the opposition, you have to communicate in each and every media that your opponent is communicating, and in this case, he makes ample use of Twitter, and we have found that it’s valuable to respond. And I do think sometimes using humor, sometimes dark humor is a way to get people’s attention, and there’s certainly plenty of cause for dark humor these days.
Glasser: Well, speaking of dark humor, I was struck by one where you, the other day, tweeted, “@POTUS took a strong stand against Dr. Evil, effectively barring him from the country. Unclear whether the ban would include his clone, Mini-me.” Do people get your use of irony and sarcasm here, or do you get a lot of Twitter trolls just going after you?
Schiff: Well, you know, these days, you’re going to get Twitter trolls no matter what you do or say, but there are, I guess, a fair number of people now who are following me, who must get my somewhat deranged sense of humor. But sometimes I read these tweets from our president, and I—or I listen to his statements, and they’re so simplistic, and some of them are just so downright ridiculous that it’s hard to respond without just pointing out how absurd they are.
And this particular tweet I was responding to, where he was trying to keep evil out of the country, you know, it—my reaction was, well, is he suggesting that there are others who are pro-evil, that are supportive of an evil immigration policy? That’s absurd, and so, kind of the absurdity of that, I think sometimes the best way to deal with it is through humor and pointing out the absurdity in what someone is saying.
Glasser: Well, I have to say, listening to you, it does remind me actually of our time in Russia, right, where humor was a long-held response, first to the 70 years of the Communist regime, and even when I lived there, during the first term of Vladimir Putin as president, where humor quickly replaced the media as Putin acted to take over the independent media. It was their version of kind of Saturday Night Live, but even edgier. Victor Shenderovich, who I thought was always probably the most astute commentator on politics, and you know, unfortunately, humor is what you use in authoritarian regimes.
Schiff: Well, I don’t think it’s a surprise that Saturday Night Live has become so popular, because it’s a tremendous outlet for people. People are feeling a kind of a tension and anxiety that I’ve never seen after an election before. I was getting hundreds and hundreds of calls and email and letters from people who said that after this election, they were having trouble sleeping, they were having trouble eating; it was affecting them viscerally in a way no other election had. I had never heard that kind of thing before, and I think that people are finding things like Saturday Night Live and Melissa McCarthy’s recent Sean Spicer imitation as cathartic, as a welcome source of relief.
And I think it really is—it does help sometimes cut through the tension, but nonetheless, these are really unprecedented times. Every day, there’s something so astonishing that in a normal administration, you would have a month to think about, talk about, debate over, and hear—maybe have an hour or two before the next incredible falsehood, indiscretion, nonsensical statement, misnomer, invented event—Bowling Green massacre—you name it. It’s one thing after another.
Glasser: Well, that’s right, and so, let’s talk about—that’s the sort of public spectacle that we’re all witnessing, or deciding on Twitter to take part in, in some way. Let’s talk about the substantive job of intelligence committee ranking member, and how that’s changed as a result of this extraordinary moment. First of all, are you hearing lots of concerns from inside the intelligence community about President Trump’s attack on them.
Schiff: You know, I was certainly hearing a lot of concern about the president’s ongoing war on the intelligence community; his comparing the IC to Nazi Germany, and you know, his use of intelligence in quotes, and just the way he was denigrating the IC. And, I mean, this is very dangerous. He’s going to have to rely on the intelligence community professionals if he wants to be successful as president, and the degree to which he was undermining them was also undermining the likelihood of the success of his own administration.
The Muslin ban, for example, which is apparently not a ban and not about Muslims—notwithstanding that’s what they call it, and have called it, at least until they decided not to call it that anymore. This is already affecting our intelligence partnerships in other parts of the world. I was in Iraq three weeks ago, and obviously, we’re working hand in hand with the Iraqis to try to retake Mosul, to try to extinguish ISIS as much as we can, at least deprive them of any major land holdings in Iraq. We’re competing for influence in Iraq with Iran. This was the most tremendous gift we could have given to Iran.
There are different camps in Iraq, some that work more closely with Americans, some that work most closely with the Iranians, some that want to open up a relationship with the Russians, and basically, we just pulled the rug out from under those that are in the so-called American camp. And things like that, this is more than him just badmouthing the IC; this is making their job more difficult, it’s making the job of our service members more difficult, more dangerous; it’s making the success of our mission more unlikely, and that is just real damage, any way you slice it.
Glasser: So, you see a practical affect from the refugee ban in terms of actual intelligence that we’re not able to collect, as a result of that?
Schiff: Absolutely. This is going to put those relationships in jeopardy. People are going to have a more difficult time cooperating with us because they can’t be seen to be working with a country that would ban people of their faith. It’s also going to mean that our service members aren’t going to be able to promise those that are working with them that they might have a chance to immigrate to the United States with their family, if the going gets tough, and they’re identified, and people come after them to kill them. We can’t say that we have their back.
And what does it mean that we have to say to those people, “Well, we can’t get you to the United States, but we’ll get you to another country that doesn’t ban Muslims.” What kind of position is that to take? So, a lot of the words are doing damage, a lot of the policies are doing damage. We’re picking fights with people who are our best friends, like the Australians. None of this is really advancing our core national security interests.
Glasser: You talk to a lot of Republican colleagues up here on Capitol Hill. It’s true that it’s a more partisan time, but certainly you guys are still on speaking terms in many ways, and you’re conducting this investigation together. What do you think they make of all of this? Republicans have been the party that has been the most suspicious of Russia, and it was Mitt Romney, after all, in 2012, who deemed them the greatest geopolitical threat. Have your Republican colleagues just changed their mind about Russia? Or are they distraught at this turn of events?
Schiff: They haven’t changed their mind about Russia. I think they are as deeply distrustful as ever. They don’t want to cross this president yet. I think they all realize the time is coming, but at this point, other than a few very notable people, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, most of the Republicans want to keep quiet and out of sight. They don’t want to contradict the president, they don’t want to pick a fight with the president. They are all hoping they can get something from this president, and they’re also mindful of the fact that he does have a base of followers in their districts that they would rather not come after them.
So, I think they’re trying to be on their best behavior right now, but they have no illusions about Vladimir Putin; none of them think he’s a friend. They all recognize the great evil that he’s doing bombing civilians in Aleppo, invading his neighbors, murdering journalists. So, I don’t think they have any new view—I don’t think they’ve been persuaded by Donald Trump that somehow Russia is now our friend.
So, they’re doing their best to stay out of sight when Russia comes up, and you probably don’t find a lot of eagerness when you go to ask them about, do you—what do you think about the president’s policy on this? But I think that’s going to be of limited duration. You know, they hope right now to get tax reform. They hope to get other things. They hope to—you know, if they have a—they’re from a district where they want to do surface mining, they hope to repeal the regulations on surface mining. If they’re from a district that—where they want to do grazing on federal lands, they hope to get the grazing in. They all want to get their thing before they’re forced to confront this president. But they know that time is coming.
Glasser: So, at The Global POLITICO, one of my goals in starting this podcast was to really make sure that we showed people that there are people in these jobs, and that was, I think, one insight that a friend of mine who worked at the White House a long time—really smart guy, brilliant person on Russia—said to me, “If there was one thing he learned as a—actually being in the room and in the meetings—was that people matter.” In Russian actually, there’s a saying of Stalin’s, still cited widely today, “The cadres decide everything.” You know, in other words, who really matters.
So, where do you come by your views, and your orientation toward Russia in all of this? I read with great fascination that one of your signature cases as a lawyer out of Harvard Law School, when you were working in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles, was with the prosecution of Richard Miller, an FBI agent caught in a sex for secrets affair with a Soviet honey trap, so-called, described as Svetlana. What was that experience like, and has that effected your views of Russia and the former Soviet Union?
Schiff: Well, that was a fascinating case where Svetlana Ogorodnivok used the classic sort of sex for secrets, and seduced a FBI agent named Richard Miller, and it was a challenging case to prosecute because Miller was kind of a wily fellow and when he was under surveillance by the FBI, he was able to make the surveillance, recognize it, and went into his superior’s office and laid out a defense that was, in fact, acting as a double agent; that the Russians, the Soviets had thought they were recruiting him, but he was, in fact, only using it to spy on them.
He was ultimately convicted. I don’t know that that was my sort of formative experience with the Soviets. I was—I’m old enough to remember the Cold War, but I—honestly, I know I say this to a lot of your listeners, but I get a lot of my information from open source, from podcasts like yours, from the newspaper. I continue to think—and maybe I’m a dinosaur—that the newspaper is still one of the best sources of information anywhere.
Glasser: My household thanks you. I hope you’re a paying subscriber to the failing New York Times.
Schiff: Well, you know, this touches on another thing that concerns me greatly, and I guess it gets back to that original question you asked me. In terms of this war of ideas that we’re in, we have a lot at stake in a rules-based international order, and so when the president talks willy-nilly about other countries leaving the E.U., or how we’re being taken advantage of by anyone, and NATO is not pulling their fair weight, and everybody is against the United States, he doesn’t seem to realize how much we have to benefit from those international institutions.
But also how much we benefit from an order that’s based on fact and truth. And so, when he belittles any poll as being fake if it doesn’t reflect well on him, or a newspaper being full of lies if it is critical of him, he is tearing down an order that is based on truth. And in its place, erecting something that is based solely on self-interest and propaganda, that really does resemble the Russian system. And you know, I am proud that the press is pushing back hard against this. I think all of us in government need to call this president out when he’s not being truthful, because we can’t get to the point of this fact-free world, because if there’s anything less in the U.S. national interest, it’s a fact-free world.
Glasser: Congressman, that seems like an important point to end on. I want to thank you very much for this conversation, for joining us. I think we’ll want to come back to you when you’ve done the investigation with your colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee into the Russian involvement in the election, and talk a little bit more about what you’ve found. But I thank you very much for your time today, and we’ll keep following you on Twitter, and I hope that you’ll keep following us at The Global POLITICO, and subscribe to our new podcast, and rate us, and give us feedback, send us ideas, as many of you already are. You can email me anytime at email@example.com, and thank you again for listening.
Schiff: Thank you. Great to join you.
Glasser: Thank you.
The Trump administration is taking another immigration policy fight to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, less than two weeks after that court delivered a stinging rebuff to President Donald Trump's travel ban executive order.
The latest battle is over the rights of detained immigrant children and teenagers to immigration court hearings to determine suitability for release on bond.
Los Angeles-based U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee ruled on Inauguration Day that such "unaccompanied" minors are entitled to go before an immigration judge in accordance with the terms of a 20-year-old legal settlement.
On Friday night, the Justice Department filed an emergency motion with the 9th Circuit asking it to block Gee's order while an appeal goes forward.
Gee's "order unquestionably diverts the agencies’ time, resources, and personnel away from the reunification process provided in [a 2008 law] and away from the already-burdened operations of the immigration courts thus interfering with pressing immigration adjudication and enforcement priorities," Justice Department lawyers wrote in their request for an emergency stay.
It's not entirely clear which 9th Circuit judges will consider the request but lawyers said it could be the same monthly motions panel that turned down a government stay request earlier this month in connection with the Trump travel ban. (Trump is expected to issue a replacement order as soon as Tuesday.)
A court spokesman did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment on to whom the new motion will be assigned.
Attorneys for the detained minors responded Monday with a filing calling the government's arguments "legally and factually specious."
The immigrants' lawyers say that in some instances teenagers have been held for more than a year without hearings, only to be released by an immigration judge soon after they turn 18.
"It is virtually self-evident that needlessly detaining children is profoundly injurious," the minors' attorneys wrote. The brief also cites the 9th Circuit's travel ban decision three times in arguing that the government doesn't deserve a stay.
"This is the closest analogy that we have," said University of California at Davis law professor Holly Cooper, one of the lawyers for the immigrant children.
Cooper said she's detected no clear policy shift between the Trump and Obama administrations in the litigation, which actually dates back to the Reagan administration. "In terms of change in policy, it's hard to tell," she said.
In 2015, the Obama administration appealed an earlier ruling by Gee — an Obama appointee — that the 1997 agreement applied to minors accompanied by a family member at the time of detention. A 9th Circuit panel upheld Gee's conclusion that the pact put limits on the detention of both unaccompanied and accompanied minors, but rejected her efforts to constrain actions the government could take against parents who entered the country illegally.
In the new dispute, the Justice Department contends that a 2008 law known as the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act essentially supersedes the 1997 settlement by transferring responsibility for custody and placement of minors in immigration proceedings to the Department of Health and Human Services. However, Gee agreed with lawyers for the children and teenagers that the 2008 law doesn't explicitly contradict the settlement so provisions in the deal for bond hearings should be enforced.
The Anti-Defamation League has again called on the Trump administration to act in light of numerous reported threats against Jewish Community Centers across the U.S. on Monday.
"The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is deeply disturbed by additional bomb threats directed against Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) in multiple states across the United States today — the fourth series of such threats since the start of the year," the group said in a statement.
As of Monday evening, bombing threats had been received in at least 10 Jewish community centers, including Buffalo; Chicago; Houston; Nashville; Birmingham, Ala.; St. Paul, Minn.; Whitefish Bay, Wis.; and Albuquerque, N.M. No explosives were found, and the ADL has deemed the reported threats "not credible."
"While ADL does not have any information at this time to indicate the presence of any actual bombs at any of the institutions threatened, the threats themselves are alarming, disruptive, and must always been taken seriously," the organization said.
The group, however, reiterated their call for President Donald Trump and his administration to outline how they planned to deal with the issue.
"We are still waiting to hear what administration will do to address ongoing threats to Jewish communities #answerthequestion," the group tweeted Monday.
— ADL (@ADL_National) February 20, 2017
Just over an hour after the ADL's call to action, first daughter Ivanka Trump, who is Jewish, tweeted in support of the threatened Jewish community centers.
"America is a nation built on the principle of religious tolerance," she tweeted Monday evening. "We must protect our houses of worship & religious centers. #JCC"
America is a nation built on the principle of religious tolerance. We must protect our houses of worship & religious centers. #JCC
— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) February 20, 2017
According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, threats were also received on Jan. 9, Jan. 18 and Jan. 31, with 30 JCCs threatened in 17 states on Jan. 18.
The ADL's comments also served as a rebuke of President Trump's refusal to answer a question about the recent rash of antisemitic threats leveled against Jews across the United States during his press conference at the White House last Thursday, as well as a similar one during his appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Asked Thursday by Jake Turx of the Jewish publication Ami Magazine how he planned to counter the uptick in anti-Semitic threats, Trump claimed to be “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life,” and accused the reporter of asking him a "very insulting question." Trump then proceeded to tell the reporter to "sit down" and call himself "the least racist person."
The ADL came out strongly against the president's response, calling it "mind-boggling."
"On two separate occasions over the past two days, President Trump has refused to say what he is going to do about rising anti-Semitism or to even condemn it," said ADL's national chair, Marvin Nathan, and CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt. "It is mind-boggling why President Trump prefers to shout down a reporter or brush this off as a political distraction."
The Trump administration previously came under heavy fire for failing to mention the Jewish people in a statement in remembrance of those slain during the Holocaust.
In recent months, there has also been an uptick in other anti-Semitic incidents unrelated to the bomb threats. In University City, Mo., on Monday, more than 100 headstones were toppled and/or damaged at a Jewish cemetery.
Simon & Schuster has canceled a forthcoming book that was to be written by Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, after tapes were released that appeared to show Yiannopoulos advocating for sexual relationships between young boys and older men.
Yiannopoulos confirmed the news about his book on Facebook Monday afternoon.
"Statement: After careful consideration @simonschuster and its @threshold_books have cancelled publication of Dangerous by Milo Yiannopoulos," Simon & Schuster spokesperson Adam Rothberg tweeted.
Yiannopoulos was also disinvited from CPAC on Monday, and his status at Breitbart remained unclear as outrage over his comments, which were revealed by a blog called The Reagan Battalion, reverberated across the internet.
Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, originally made a deal for Yiannopoulos' book, titled "Dangerous," in December. It was slated to be published this June.
Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, died in New York City on Monday at 64, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced in a statement Monday.
"A prominent Russian diplomat has passed away while at work. We'd like to express our sincere condolences to Vitaly Churkin's family," the ministry said in the statement.
Vladimir Safronkov, Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador, told The Associated Press that Churkin became ill in his office Monday and was taken to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where he passed away. The foreign ministry's official Facebook account said in a post that Churkin "died in harness" a day ahead of this 65th birthday.
They provided no further details of the circumstances surrounding his death. A cause of death was not immediately identified at the hospital.
The Russian embassy in the United States called his passing a "[t]remendous loss for Russian diplomacy" in a tweet Monday.
Numerous colleagues, both recent and past, lavished Churckin's diplomatic prowess and integrity after news of his passing spread. Many stressed that while they often opposed the views of Churkin and Russia, they held deep respect for his commitment to his country.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley touted Churkin as a "gracious colleague" in a statement released Monday.
"We did not always see things the same way, but he unquestionably advocated his country's positions with great skill," she said.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power tweeted Monday that she was "devastated" by his passing, calling Churkin a "diplomatic maestro & deeply caring man who did all he [could] to bridge US-RUS differences."
French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre said Churkin "always worked together in a spirit of mutual respect and personal friendship," despite their political differences.
The U.N. held a moment of silence in remembrance of Churkin at their international headquarters in New York City Monday.
Churkin was born in Moscow in 1952. He graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in 1974 before joining the Soviet Union's foreign ministry that same year. He has served as Russia's representative to the U.N. since 2006 and was the longest-serving member on the United Nations Security Council, the most powerful body within the U.N.
Churkin previously served as an ambassador to Belgium and Canada, as well as a liaison to NATO.
President Donald Trump played a full round of golf Sunday, enjoying once again a habit he regularly assailed Barack Obama for. After initially saying Trump had only played a few holes, the White House reversed itself Monday after professional golfer Rory McIlroy posted on his website that he had played 18 holes with the president.
“As stated yesterday the President played golf. He intended to play a few holes and decided to play longer,” White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said Monday. “He also had a full day of meetings, calls and interviews for the new NSA, which he is continuing today before returning to Washington, D.C. tonight.”
This weekend marks Trump’s third straight at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, which he has taken to calling the “Winter White House.”
Trump regularly panned Obama for his penchant for hitting the links, but Trump made it to the golf course far faster than the previous two presidents, waiting just two weeks before playing his first round. Trump recently golfed with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and is expected to conduct more such golf diplomacy.
Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos is ruling out a run for governor of Illinois, as her party looks to take on multimillionaire Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2018.
Bustos, a former journalist and three-term member of Congress who represents the northwestern corner of Illinois, would have faced a huge funding challenge, with Rauner already giving his own campaign $50 million for his reelection run and several wealthy Democrats eyeing the race.
Bustos acknowledged the fundraising hurdles but said in an interview Monday that her new leadership position in the House Democratic Caucus was also a key factor in deciding not to run.
“As much of anything, it’s based on the fact that I was just elected to the House Democratic leadership,” she told POLITICO. “I think it’s a big responsibility and I serve as a voice for the folks in the heartland who feel that they’ve been left behind.”
Bustos had been viewed as an attractive statewide candidate. For one, no other woman has filed or has publicly shown serious interest in a gubernatorial run. For another, Bustos had potential to draw Democratic votes from outside the Chicago area, where Republicans tend to be more competitive.
But Illinois Democratic insiders for weeks had doubted Bustos would enter the fray, with much of the momentum behind a big-money candidate who could compete against Rauner or an outsider who could rally progressive energy in the party.
Democrat Chris Kennedy, a wealthy Illinois businessman and nephew to former President John F. Kennedy, jumped in the race earlier this month. Billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker, brother to former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, is also considering a bid.
Three candidates have already filed for the Democratic gubernatorial primary, and that is even before billionaire Pritzker makes a final decision. Several Democratic legislators, including state Sens. Daniel Biss, Andy Manar and Kwame Raoul have also shown interest in the office.
However, Rauner in December deposited $50 million into his campaign account, making clear the contest will not only be a brawl, but necessitate large sums of cash to compete.
Bustos is one of three Democrats running the messaging arm for the House Democratic Caucus this Congress, known as the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. While a lower-rung leadership position, it is viewed by ambitious House Democrats as a launching point for when the current longtime regime, led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), retires.
Bustos is also the only member in the House Democratic leadership ranks to hail from the Midwest, where Democrats struggled mightily with Rust Belt voters during the election. Protecting Bustos' seat without her could have been a challenge for Democrats next year, after President Donald Trump carried the district in 2016.
“I want to make that as we’re sitting around looking at policy and messaging…that we have an understanding of how we talk with people in the heartland,” Bustos said.
Bustos said she spent Presidents Day making calls to Illinois Democrats letting them know her decision, starting with Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who ruled out his own bid for the governor’s mansion in the fall. Her second call was to Durbin’s wife, Loretta, a longtime lobbyist in the state.
Bustos said she’s not ready to endorse a candidate in the governor’s race — she expects to weigh in on that in a month or so — but that didn’t stop her from hitting Rauner.
“It is an absolute disaster, I can’t even call it leadership, under his tenure,” she said.
Bustos’ decision not to run comes in the midst of an intense, bitter financial crisis in Illinois. The state has gone nearly two years without an operating budget, as Rauner and the Democratic-controlled Legislature has been locked in partisan fighting.
That has left courts in control of prioritizing payments, leaving many of the state’s social service agencies in financial free-fall. The next governor will not only have to sort that out, but must also contend with the worst funded pension system in the nation and a more than $11 billion bill backlog.
Vice President Mike Pence affirmed the White House’s support for a “free and independent press” during a news conference in Brussels on Monday, just days after President Donald Trump called the media “the enemy of the American people.”
Pence did go on to say that Trump and the administration “continue to call out the media when they play fast and loose with the facts.”
“The truth is that we have in President Trump someone who has a unique ability to speak directly to the American people,” Pence said. “And when the media gets it wrong, I promise you President Trump will take his case straight to the American people to set the record straight.”
Those comments came after Trump, who as a candidate relished in attacking the media, has escalated those attacks as president, recently saying in a speech at the CIA that he had a “war” with the press. He has since taken to calling mainstream media outlets “fake news.”
The comments have troubled some Republican leaders, with Sen. John McCain comparing the language to that of dictators.
President Donald Trump named Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster on Monday as his national security adviser, calling the Army strategist “a man of tremendous talent and tremendous experience.”
McMaster will replace Michael Flynn, who was asked to resign after misleading Vice President Mike Pence about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States about U.S. sanctions. Retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who served as acting NSA after Flynn’s departure, will remain on the National Security Council as chief of staff.
Trump, seated with McMaster and Kellogg on a couch at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort , said “that combination is very, very special.”
In brief remarks, McMaster thanked Trump for the opportunity to serve. Kellogg echoed the gratitude, saying he was honored to serve alongside McMaster, who he called “a great statesman, a great soldier.”
“This is a great team,” Trump said. “Our country is lucky to have two people like this.”
Trump’s first choice for the job, retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward, turned down the offer last Thursday. That left the White House scrambling to build a list of potential replacements. Gen. David Petraeus took himself out of consideration over concerns that he wouldn't have full authority to hire his own staff.
McMaster wasn't on the White House’s radar for the job until Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), increasingly a trusted foreign policy voice within the White House, called Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner and Reince Priebus early last week and urged them to consider the former combat general, who served in both Iraq wars and in Afghanistan. Cotton's staffers then helped facilitate contact between McMaster and the White House. On Thursday, Cotton received word in a text message from one senior White House staffer that McMaster was on the short list.
The senator, a former Army captain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, has long admired the general from afar, according to a source close to Cotton. He even submitted his resignation papers to the Army in 2007 partly because they passed over H.R. McMaster for a promotion to 1-star general, this person said. (Cotton later rescinded the resignation to deploy to Afghanistan.)
McMaster flew to Florida and met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, where his appointment was officially announced Monday afternoon. He flew back to Washington with the president on Air Force One on Monday evening.
Cotton, meanwhile, received a text message from Kushner thanking him for putting McMaster on their radar and stating that "he's going to be a great choice," a source familiar with the process said.
White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Monday that Trump "gave full authority for McMaster, who will remain on active duty while serving as national security adviser, to hire whatever staff he sees fit,” according to a pool report.
He will be the third national security adviser on active duty, following in the footsteps of Brett Scowcroft, who served under President Gerald Ford, and Colin Powell, who was President Ronald Reagan's NSA.
McMaster's appointment came as a relief to a number of the GOP's foreign policy hawks who have been alarmed by Trump's warm words toward Russia and President Vladimir Putin. In his current position as director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, McMaster has been tasked with developing a long-term strategy for the Army and has focused specifically on how the U.S. can counter Russian tactics, including a heavy reliance on cyberattacks, that have enabled its incursions in Ukraine.
Michael McFaul, the former Russia ambassador under President Obama, said McMaster was due to present his findings from a study on European deterrence toward Russia at a seminar next month at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
"Nothing that I've known from our past interactions would lead me to believe that he is soft on Russia," McFaul said. "My prediction is that he and Mattis will agree on a lot of aspects of this policy towards Russia."
McMaster, McFaul predicted, might be more likely to clash with Bannon and others in the White House who view counterterrorism through a messianic lens as a war with radical Islamic fundamentalism.
"H.R. has fought in Iraq and understands the virtues of cultivating local — that is, Muslim — allies," McFaul said.
"He is one of the most respected military strategists of the last 20 years — a thinker and a doer. In that sense, he is reputationally the polar opposite of Flynn, and will be a much better fit with the non-ideological, technocratic team of [Jim] Mattis, [Rex] Tillerson and [John} Kelly," said Derek Chollet, counselor at The German Marshall Fund of the United States who served in the Obama administration. "But he has scant experience with the interagency process of the inner workings of policy-making, so will have a considerable learning curve there."
A former National Security Council member who served during the Obama administration offered McMaster some advice.
"He'll have to focus on two things right away: establishing a clear interagency policy process to address the dysfunction of the past month and leading a deeply demoralized NSC staff to stem the flight of quality people from this White House," said Prem Kumar.
Another NSC official sounded a note of warning,
"Ensuring all voices, especially those that provide the counter argument, is essential to an effective organization. The more you try to squelch out dissent within the structure, the louder it will be voiced outside of the official process, which ultimately hurts your ability to effect change," said one NSC official who served during Obama's administration.
Nahal Toosi contributed reporting for this story.
The Trump administration is considering dropping an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees in a revised executive order on immigration that the president is expected to release this week, according to a source briefed on drafts of the plans.
The revised order, however, would keep in place provisions that temporarily ban the admission of all refugees, including Syrians. It also will temporarily halt the future issuance of visas to people from the same seven predominantly Muslim countries targeted by the legally contentious order it is designed to replace.
Critics fear those temporary bans will effectively turn indefinite. That’s because some, possibly all, of the countries targeted — as well programs for Syrian and other refugees — may not be able to meet the vetting standards that President Donald Trump decides to set to lift the temporary bans. The seven countries are Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya.
The source stressed that what had been described to him was still draft information and could change. A White House spokesman declined to confirm any details, saying, “Nothing you’ve been told is final.”
The ACLU and other groups say that, regardless of the revisions, they will likely pursue ongoing lawsuits in courts that have already prevented the administration from enforcing the first order. Critics have widely derided that order as a “Muslim ban,” but the president has insisted his actions are needed to keep the United States safe from terrorists.
“As long as there continues to be a ban, we will pursue our lawsuits,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “The discrimination that spurred the ban doesn’t simply disappear by the removal of a few words.”
It was not clear if the revised executive order would drop language in the original that stated religious minorities should get preference in the admissions process. Legally speaking, however, dropping that language could aid the administration as it tries to defend the order in the courts.
This past week, during the Munich Security Conference, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly previewed some elements of the expected revised order. He said it would be phased in over a few days so that people who are already on planes heading to the United States are not suddenly barred upon arrival. Kelly also indicated that the new executive order would not apply to legal permanent residents of the United States.
The source briefed on the drafts said the new order also would likely exempt dual nationals of the seven countries — a French-Libyan person who has a French passport, for instance, could likely travel to the U.S. on that passport.
People from the seven countries who already hold valid U.S. visas will likely be exempted from the travel ban, the source said. It’s not clear what will happen to people who had valid visas that were canceled as a result of the rollout of the first version of the executive order.
The administration tried to immediately implement the previous executive order, released on Jan. 27, leading to chaos at airports nationwide as permanent residents, visa holders from the seven countries, and others were suddenly not allowed into the United States.
Lawyers and protesters jammed airports that weekend, demanding that stranded travelers be permitted entry. The initial order even appeared to apply to Iraqi interpreters who had assisted U.S. troops and been given special visas after months of vetting; the new version is likely to exempt those Iraqis from the ban, thanks in part to demands from Defense Department officials.
While at the Munich conference, Kelly characterized the executive orders as mere pauses of a few months to allow the new administration to examine the various visa and refugee programs for any security gaps. Critics believe that Trump will demand such strict standards, requiring for instance, the cooperation of hostile governments such as Iran’s, to help vet travelers, that the pauses could be permanent.
Trump has said in interviews that he wants religious minorities overseas — specifically Christians — to have preference in admission to the United States. He also said during his campaign for president that the U.S. should, on national security grounds, bar all Muslims from entry, a position he later switched to what he called “extreme vetting.”
Advocates for refugees and immigrants say current vetting procedures are already extremely strict, with permission to enter the United States sometimes taking years to obtain. The federal lawsuits against the Trump administration have used his public statements as evidence that he is trying to impose a religious test for U.S. entry.
President Donald Trump touts “incredible progress” in his first month in office. But the frenetic period that opened with an inaugural address about “American carnage” and ended with a raucous campaign rally has brought a spotty record that falls short of his promises.
Despite dizzying sound and fury, the president failed to halt immigration from Muslim countries, to label China a currency manipulator, to deliver a serious plan for funding his border wall or to repeal Obamacare—all among his many promises during last year’s campaign. He even weakened ethics rules affecting lobbyists, in the guise of a promised ban.
The Muslim travel ban, Trump’s most consequential and controversial executive order, one of 23 signed so far, lies dead in the courts. He has achieved no noticeable progress on tax reform. The White House is already facing multiple investigations by a Republican-controlled Congress while the intelligence community investigates possible collusion last year between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Trump has appointed just three of the 15 required deputy secretary Cabinet positions; fewer than 40 of the 700 key administration jobs requiring Senate confirmation have been filled.
Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said Trump was “off to the worst start of a presidency in a very long time”—and that was two days after he’d taken office, before Trump's bellicose calls with foreign leaders, before his National security adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign after just 24 days in the job, before he attacked the nation’s independent courts and declared the media an “enemy of the American people.”
“There's no precedent in the modern history of the presidency for what we've seen over the last month,” said Republican operative Steve Schmidt. “If you combine the dishonesty, the sloppiness and incompetence, the result is deep concern and anxiety across allied capitals, glee in the capitals of foreign enemies, and an American public that regard him one month in with the lowest levels of support in the modern era. We’ve just never seen an American administration collapse from a credibility perspective as quickly as this one has.”
According to Gallup, Trump’s 40 percent approval rating after one month is 21 points below the historical average rating for new presidents in mid-February and 11 points below the lowest mid-February rating for any other new president.
In Great Britain, where Trump may not be extended the courtesy of an invitation to speak before both houses of Parliament, betting markets are seeing increasing action on the odds of Trump’s possible impeachment. "We’ve taken five times the amount of bets on him failing to see out his full term than on him doing so,” said Jessica Bridge, a spokesperson for Ladbrokes, a British betting market.
At his news conference last week, Trump touted what he views as significant accomplishments during his first month on the job, calling his talks with foreign leaders "enormously productive," noting that he has already instructed Secretary of Defense James Mattis to submit a plan to defeat ISIS, developed a new council to promote female entrepreneurs and outlined plans to bolster the military and local law enforcement agencies.
Mostly, he spoke in generalities. “I’m keeping my promises to the American people,” he said. “These are campaign promises. Some people are so surprised that we’re having strong borders.”
Trump appears likely to stick to those generalities with the general public, particularly among excited supporters who may be less concerned with the details and more interested in his commitment to decimating the Washington establishment.
“He’s beginning to understand where his power truly lies. Washington is not a safe space for Trump,” said Bruce Haynes, a GOP consultant.
“Trump in the White House feels like a lion caged up in the zoo,” Haynes said. “When he escapes Washington, he is in his natural habitat and becomes his full and complete self. I expect him to find ways to spend more time outside of D.C., with the voters who made him their champion, as opposed to inside D.C., with the bureaucracy that is threatened by him and wants to emasculate him.”
Rallying supporters in Melbourne, Florida, Saturday evening, Trump reveled further in his unlikely electoral win and celebrated the “great movement” he leads, one that is defined mostly in opposition to large blocs and institutions: organized political parties, cultural and socioeconomic “elites” and, most of all, the mass media. “They could not defeat us in the primaries, and they could not defeat us in the general election, and we will continue to expose them for what they are, and most important, we will continue to win, win, win.”
If the scoreboard, aside from a healthy stock market, does not seem to reflect much winning just yet, Trump has an easy explanation — that he “inherited a mess,” a notable shift from his promise last July that “I alone can fix it.”
Now ensconced behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, Trump blames the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for striking down his travel ban, which was hastily signed without thorough vetting by legal experts and the agencies directed to implement it. He blames the intelligence community for leaking damaging information about Flynn and other investigations rather than the former adviser, who admitted to misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of his conversations with the Russian ambassador. He blames nameless staffers for giving him false information and, more than anything, the media for its reporting stories he has taken to dismissing as “fake news.”
Despite those attacks on the media, Trump’s own credibility has been weakened by a torrent of falsehoods coming from top surrogates, his Twitter feed and his mouth: unsupported or easily disproved assertions about the inauguration crowd size, crime statistics, claims of fraudulent voting even though he won the election, the size of his Electoral College victory and, on Saturday, a passing statement about a recent terror attack in Sweden. (There wasn’t one.)
Though Trump’s victory validated his cult-of-personality approach to politics, it is no guarantee that the same approach will be effective when it comes to governing itself. Doubts are growing, for instance, among national security experts in both parties about the new administration’s preparedness for its first serious geopolitical test.
“The National Security Council hasn't even met formally. So that means that the very structure that is required in order to provide thoughtful and careful information to the president is not working right now,” Leon Panetta, a Democrat who served as CIA director and secretary of defense under President Barack Obama, said Sunday on NBC’s "Meet the Press." “What happens if there's a major crisis that faces this country? If Russia engages in a provocation, if Iran does something stupid, if North Korea does something stupid, and we have to respond, where is the structure to be able to evaluate that threat, consider it, and provide options to the president? Right now, that's dysfunctional, and that's what worries me a great deal.”
Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, were far more optimistic a month ago about realizing the potential of a governing moment in which they control both houses of Congress and the White House than they are now.
Although relieved that Trump nominated a competent and charismatic conservative, Neil Gorsuch, to the Supreme Court, GOP lawmakers are increasingly frustrated by the president’s inability to focus and worry about their legislative agenda bogging down in a quagmire of daily controversies and petty fights. Many of them, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have expressed dismay about the president’s constant tweeting.
Sen. John McCain, an elder GOP statesman with little to lose politically at the outset of his final six-year term, is emerging as one of his party’s most outspoken anti-Trump voices after delivering a speech this weekend to NATO allies in Munich that was a stunning rebuke to the president.
Suggesting the postwar global democratic order is now threatened by “an increasing turn away from universal values and toward old ties of blood and race and sectarianism,” McCain lamented that the founders of the Munich Conference “would be alarmed that more and more of our fellow citizens seem to be flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent.”
McCain went further in an interview broadcast Sunday morning on "Meet the Press," sounding an alarm about Trump’s constant efforts to undermine and weaken the media. “We need a free press. We must have it. It's vital. If you want to preserve — I'm very serious now — if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press.
“And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time,” McCain said. “That's how dictators get started.”
Conservatives are aggressively ramping up their campaign to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court this week, using a rare congressional recess to needle vulnerable Senate Democrats into supporting President Donald Trump’s high court nominee.
A bloc of right-leaning groups are organizing events around the country to help Gorsuch get confirmed, organizers said. The Judicial Crisis Network has arranged events aimed squarely at vulnerable Senate Democrats up for reelection in 2018 in red and purple states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Indiana, Montana, Michigan, Florida, Missouri and West Virginia.
“There’s an intense focus with those senators back home,” said Gary Marx, a former executive director at both the Judicial Crisis Network and Faith and Freedom Coalition who is helping organize the pro-Gorsuch campaign. “We’re not going to stand by and let that radical left wing element smear [Gorsuch].”
Senators from those states will be the key to Gorsuch’s confirmation vote. There are 52 Republican senators, so Gorsuch needs to win at least eight Democratic votes to clear a filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is eyeing a confirmation vote in early April. If Gorsuch cannot receive 60 votes, Senate Republicans say they may change the rules of the Senate to ease his confirmation.
Some Democrats like Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin will likely prove unmovable, but that isn’t stopping Republicans from trying to gain political advantage by attacking her opposition to Gorsuch. Gov. Scott Walker has called it “hypocrisy” for Baldwin to oppose Gorsuch so early in the process; he will give a Wednesday afternoon press conference at the state Capitol in Madison in support of Gorsuch. Baldwin has dared Walker to run against her next year.
On Wednesday Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill as well as West Virginia Attorney General and potential Senate candidate Patrick Morrisey will speak in support of Gorsuch in their respective state capitols, as will Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman on Thursday. Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), a close Trump ally, will lead a Wednesday press conference on the Supreme Court nomination in Harrisburg and former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) will speak on Thursday in St. Louis.
The effort seeks to capitalize on how Gorsuch is binding together a Republican Party otherwise divided on policy issues and Trump’s presidency. Though congressional Republicans are returning home to organized protesters opposing Trump’s agenda and their vows to repeal Obamacare, there is almost no internal opposition to Gorsuch.
The Judicial Crisis Network is spending at least $10 million targeting Senate Democrats running for reelection in Trump states over Gorsuch's nomination. The anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List will hold events outside the home offices of Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Montana Sen. Jon Tester and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson this week.
"According to exit polls more than one fifth of voters had the court in mind when they went to the ballot box in November. Those voters overwhelmingly supported President Trump," said Mallory Quigley, a spokeswoman for SBA List. "Any senator who attempts to block this highly qualified nominee will face political consequences."
Concerned Veterans of America is planning direct mail and digital ad campaigns in the 10 targeted states. Tea Party Patriots is organizing activist calls and visits to red state Democrats' home offices.
The activity is significant because the Presidents Day recess may be one of the last chances for conservatives to try and rattle red-state Democrats before Gorsuch’s vote. The only other time off scheduled for the Senate right now before the two-week April recess is a brief break around Easter.
Matt Schlapp, chairman of the Conservative Political Action Conference, had a clear message when he announced on Saturday thatright-wing agitator Milo Yiannopoulos would be highlighting this year’s event. “We think free speech includes hearing Milo’s important perspective,” he tweeted. Yiannopoulos was an unexpected invitee. The central figure in a number of campus controversies, he traffics in shock then spins it as free-speech advocacy. Schlapp had clearly gobbled up the spin.
But not everyone was buying it. The announcement drew immediate protests from prominent conservatives. Peter Wehner, a conservative writer and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, called the invite “more evidence of the moral decay of conservatism.” Jonah Goldberg of National Review, who greeted the news as “sad and disappointing,” added, “This new big tent is gonna have some wild parties, but leave me off the invite list."
It’s not hard to see why conservatives might object to Yiannopoulos. Emerging from the alt-right swamps of GamerGate and Breitbart (he calls himself a “fellow-traveller” of the alt-right, a white nationalist, misogynist movement), Yiannopoulos’s reputation hangs on his willingness to make all sorts of anti-woman, anti-Semitic, anti-gay (even though he is gay himself), anti-Islam, anti-everyone comments. His profanity and explicit sexual talk makes him anathema to the Christian right, and he’s never had a word to say about the economic policies that make the supply-side right tick. And this was before folks began to pay attention to his comments criticizing sexual consent and promoting sex with underage teens—comments that ended up getting him disinvited from the conservative conference on Monday.
So, why was he even invited to CPAC in the first place?
The answer has to do with an organization and a movement that have lost their way. CPAC, once the place where American conservatism defined itself, is in disarray because conservatives are in disarray. Having just traded much of their belief system to win an election, they’re finding it hard to reset their ideological compasses. Yiannopoulos is just a symptom. And withdrawing his invitation is not the cure.
There was a historical irony in CPAC’s decision to embrace an offensive, fringe figure like Yiannopoulos. Back in 1964 the American Conservative Union, the organization that runs CPAC, was founded to clean up conservatism’s image, to make it responsible and respectable.
The ACU emerged in the aftermath of Barry Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 presidential bid. Throughout the campaign, Democrats successfully tied Goldwater to the racists in the Ku Klux Klan and the conspiracists in the John Birch Society. For the conservative writers and activists who gathered in Washington D.C. after the election, the extremism charge was an existential problem. If conservatism could be dismissed as a fringe collection of kooks and Klansmen, it could not be an effective force in American politics. So they erected the ACU as a guardian of “responsible conservatism.” The first prohibition: No one could join the board of directors who had ties to the Birch Society.
The ACU was part of a broader effort to police the lines of conservatism, to toss out any groups that might tarnish the right’s image. In the late 1950s,for instance, National Review purged writers with connections to the anti-Semitic rag American Mercury. As William F. Buckley Jr., National Review’s founder, later observed, “Conservatism must be wiped clean of the parasitic cant that defaces it, and repels so many of those who approach it inquiringly.” The ACU, and through it, the CPAC speaker roster, was a place where that parasitic cant could be regularly scrubbed away.
So long as the core of the conservative project held, CPAC operated as a standard annual meeting. Every year, conservatives flocked to D.C. to rub elbows with the politicians and activists who formulated, popularized and enacted the ideas and policies that defined the American right. But as conservatism began to fracture in the mid-2000s, CPAC became a more tumultuous event. The invite list became a battle not just over who spoke when, but how conservatism would be defined—what controversial figures and celebrities it would include, what values and identities it would embrace. Entertainment value began to matter in a way that it hadn’t before, which is how someone like Donald Trump, hardly a conservative leader, came to speak at the 2011 meeting. And there were some Yiannopoulos-esque exclusions:Anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller, who had been a CPAC regular since 2009, was barred in 2013 as conservative activists sought to moderate their image after the 2012 election. She hasn’t been allowed back since. And Chris Christie was left out in the cold in 2013 after hugging Barack Obama during Hurricane Sandy.
CPAC also reflected deeper splits in the conservative coalition. In the late 2000s, as the influence of the religious right waned and libertarians grew more powerful, there were open battles over whether to include gay conservatives and atheists, as these groups became lightning rods for a growing power struggle within the movement. When GOProud, a group of gay conservatives, was allowed to serve as a sponsor in 2010 and 2011, speakers at the event denounced the decision. That opposition led to GOProud’s exclusion in 2012, an exile that lasted until the organization was dissolved in mid-2014. The Log Cabin Republicans had a protracted fight with the organization over sponsorship, which they finally won in 2016. American Atheists likewise were disinvited in 2014, only to be welcomed the next year.
CPAC has spent much of the 2010s extending and revoking invitations, seemingly unsure who, exactly, counts as a conservative. Such was the fate of Yiannopoulos: His invitation was trumpeted as a coup for free speech; his disinvitation as a coup for conservative values. That was hardly the message CPAC had hoped to deliver—that one had to choose between free speech and conservatism—but the organization’s ham-fisted handling of the whole affair ultimately drove them to that choice.
Yet CPAC does not bear all the blame here. If organizers were confused about how someone like Yiannopoulos fits into the conservative movement, they are by no means alone. The rise of Trumpism has scuttled old conservative alliances and values. The right has largely abandoned free trade and open markets. In 2015, CPAC presented a united front against Vladimir Putin; his popularity among Republicans has since surged. Trump himself—profane, scandal-ridden and uninterested in conservative ideas—has become the leader of the Republican Party and a wildly popular figure in conservative circles. The conservative resistance to Trump is vocal but small. Most of the rest of the movement set aside their values to embrace Trump, smashing their ideological compasses in the process.
How were CPAC organizers supposed to know conservatives would be put off by Yiannopoulos? After all, it was largely a small anti-Trump conservative faction that opposed the invitation at first, before the remarks about pedophilia (remarks that Yiannopoulos responded to first with defiance, then contrition, stressing that he had not meant to suggest sexual contact with underage children and teens was acceptable). For Trump supporters—and the vast majority of conservatives support Trump—the distance between the president and Yiannopoulus was not significant. He has said deeply offensive things about women and Muslims. So has Trump. He writes for Breitbart, “the platform of the alt-right.” The site’s former chairman, Steve Bannon, is Trump’s senior counselor and chief strategist. He has criticized sexual consent and celebrates sex with underage teens. Trump starred in an Access Hollywood tape that made clear he wasn’t a huge fan of sexual consent himself, and that he had no qualms with forcing himself on women. Trump and Yiannopoulos are brothers-in-arms in the fight against “political correctness,” drawing heated criticism from liberals and select members of the conservative establishment. Even now it’s not clear that the majority of conservatives were put off by Yiannopoulos’s comments, just that the firestorm had gotten a little too uncomfortable. Looking at it this way, the shocking thing isn’t that Yiannopoulos was invited. It’s that CPAC felt pressured to drop him.
With Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of Congress, conservatives have more political power today than they have had in a decade. Still, conservatism as a political movement is disintegrating, held together not by a shared commitment to ideas like democratic governance, stability or a distinct moral vision, but rather a desire for power. That makes for a movement whose boundaries are blurred beyond recognition and whose standards are impossible to detect. And that is a problem that no disinvitation can fix.
President Donald Trump took to Twitter to again defend his comments on Sweden, writing on Monday morning that “fake news media” is defending Sweden’s immigration policies.
“Give the public a break - The FAKE NEWS media is trying to say that large scale immigration in Sweden is working out just beautifully. NOT!” Trump tweeted.
This tweet follows a social media dustup that started after Trump alluded to an unknown event in Sweden during a campaign stop in Melbourne, Florida on Saturday.
"You look at what's happening in Germany. You look at what's happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers and they're having problems like they never thought possible," Trump said. He later stated that he was referring to a Fox News story on immigration in Sweden.
Trump received a swift rebuke on Twitter for his comment. Hashtags, such as #LastNightInSweden and #PrayForSweden, popped up, and dozens of notable people, including Chelsea Clinton, chimed in to criticize the president.
The Swedish embassy in the U.S. responded to Trump’s tweet on Sunday night, linking to Trump’s tweet referencing the Fox News story and writing, “We look forward to informing the US administration about Swedish immigration and integration policies.”
Twitter users have been trying to figure it out: What happened in Sweden?
With jokes about getting lost in an Ikea, posts of photos of Swedish pop group ABBA and comments about Swedish Fish candy, President Donald Trump ignited a social media firestorm over the weekend when he alleged during a campaign rally that something nefarious had recently taken place in Sweden.
"You look at what's happening in Germany. You look at what's happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers and they're having problems like they never thought possible," Trump said Saturday evening during a campaign rally in Melbourne, Florida.
Though Trump did not specifically say there was a terror attack, he subsequently brought up attacks that happened in Paris and Nice, France.
On Sunday afternoon, Trump tweeted that his Sweden statement "was in reference to a story that was broadcast on @FoxNews concerning immigrants & Sweden."
The Swedish Embassy's Twitter account retweeted Trump's tweet Sunday evening, adding: "We look forward to informing the US administration about Swedish immigration and integration policies."
The president's statements, which prompted several hashtag trends on Twitter such as #swedenincident, #LastNightInSweden and #PrayForSweden, came during a speech where he blasted "fake news." His statement also comes several weeks after senior adviser Kellyanne Conway cited a nonexistent "Bowling Green massacre" in several news interviews.
“Sweden? Terror Attack? What has he been smoking? Questions abound,” former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt tweeted.
The Sweden Twitter account, which is run by a new Swedish citizen every week, tweeted a thread after Trump's initial statements, saying: "No. Nothing has happened here in Sweden. There has not [been] any terrorist attacks here. At all. The main news right now is about Melfest," a singing competition.
On Sunday, the Sweden Twitter account once more reiterated that nothing happened.
"And if anyone has missed it, NOTHING HAS HAPPENED IN SWEDEN! There is no terrorattack or anything of the sort," read the tweet.
The Fox News segment on Friday night's "Tucker Carlson Tonight" included an interview with filmmaker and media personality Ami Horowitz on a documentary he is making about Sweden. Business Insider first reported this possibility.
"There was an absolute surge in gun violence and rape in Sweden once they began this open-door policy," Horowitz said during the interview with Carlson about the country's refugee policies.
According to the 2016 Swedish Crime Survey, crime rates have remained steady, with some fluctuations over the past decade, such as a small spike in 2013 before dropping back down.
"They oftentimes try to cover up some of these crimes," Horowitz alleged of crime statistics released by Sweden.
In the midst of jokes on Twitter, some users defended Trump by citing a 2012 U.N. report that showed Sweden had the highest rate of police-recorded rape offenses in Europe. Sweden has a broad term for what constitutes rape.
Bjarke Smith Meyer contributed to this report.
When then-Gov. Mike Pence faced the worst public health crisis to hit Indiana in decades, he turned to Obamacare — a program he vilified and voted against.
In 2015, as a rash of HIV infections spread through rural southern Indiana, state health officials parachuted into Scott County and enrolled scores of people into Obamacare's expanded Medicaid program so they could get medical care and substance abuse treatment. Many were addicted to opioids and had contracted HIV by sharing dirty needles.
Two years later, Pence is helping to lead the Republican effort to dismantle the program that helped him halt the deadly outbreak in an impoverished swathe of Indiana.
"These are good salt-of-the-earth folks who got caught up in a disaster. Not funding this would be like removing sandbags during a flood,” said Blake Johnson, who helps people in Scott County enroll in health coverage on behalf of Covering Kids & Families of Indiana, a nonprofit patient group.
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump had been among several GOP presidential candidates who talked about the plight of Americans addicted to opioids. “I would dramatically expand access to treatment slots and end Medicaid policies that obstruct inpatient treatment,” Trump said last fall, three weeks before his election. He also talked about dismantling Obamacare and turning Medicaid into a block grant program — an approach that caps federal support and could force states to cut benefits or eligibility.
Pence was one of the GOP governors who had agreed to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, albeit with certain conservative tweaks. He signed his state’s Medicaid expansion known as the Healthy Indiana Plan 2.0 in 2015 — the same year as the HIV outbreak.
Some Pence critics have said his strong anti-abortion stance, which led Indiana to close several Planned Parenthood clinics including one in Scott County, may have worsened the outbreak by making HIV testing less accessible.
His health department relied heavily on the program to respond to the HIV crisis in southern Indiana. Officials set up a “one-stop-shop,” next to a free needle exchange, in the tiny, impoverished town of Austin, and offered hot meals, HIV screenings, vaccinations and assistance to help people enroll in insurance — many for the first time — through HIP 2.0.
Within a month, about 168 people were approved for the program, according to figures provided by the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration. About 2,280 people in the Scott County are currently enrolled, many of whom are now getting substance abuse treatment.
“A lack of health insurance was one of the first barriers to testing and treatment identified in Scott County,” said Jeni O’Malley, a spokesperson for the Indiana State Department of Health. “HIP 2.0 helped address that gap and opened doors to medical care and treatment that have been life-changing for people living with HIV and hepatitis C.”
Health insurance is pivotal for HIV patients, since their condition is chronic and requires consistent treatment and medication. And since the outbreak in Scott County was fueled by people contracting the infection by sharing needles, many were in need of robust substance abuse treatment services that are also covered through HIP 2.0.
The Affordable Care Act provided money to fully fund expanded Medicaid through 2016, but the share of the government’s tab dips gradually to 90 percent by 2020. Under the law, eligibility was expanded to people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $16,400 for an individual, and was no longer limited to pregnant women, children, or the disabled.
Pence put a conservative spin on the program by requiring enrollees to make monthly contributions — $1 a month for many. But people with HIV and chronic substance abuse disorders are exempt from such contributions and also qualify for enhanced benefits such as vision, dental and nonemergency transportation. The plan covers outpatient services and case management programs that are essential for people with chronic conditions like HIV.
Now, health care providers and patient advocates are nervously watching the Obamacare repeal debate play out in Washington, worried about what might happen if HIP funding goes away and the law’s coverage of mental health services is weakened.
“We are currently in a panic about what’s going to happen,” said Jaymes Young, a medical case manager for The Damien Center, the largest AIDS service organization in the state.
A recent analysis by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation found that coverage for people with HIV increased significantly as a result of the law's Medicaid expansion.
Another study published in Health Affairs found that fewer uninsured HIV patients were hospitalized in states that had expanded Medicaid. In fact, between 2012 and the middle of 2014, the percentage of hospitalizations among uninsured HIV patients dropped from 13.7 percent to 5.5 percent since more people had coverage. Meanwhile, in states that didn't expand Medicaid, the percentage of hospitalizations for uninsured HIV patients rose from 14.5 percent to 15.7 percent.
Researchers also found that HIV patients without health insurance were nearly 40 percent more likely to die during their hospital stay, compared to those with health insurance.
To be sure, HIV-positive patients in Indiana may get coverage through other sources, including traditional Medicaid, insurance funded through the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program and commercial coverage on the exchanges. But HIP 2.0 was particularly important for this population because it provides substance abuse and mental health treatment that includes case management and even non-emergency transportation to get people to doctors’ appointments and therapy sessions.
Pence, a longtime Obamacare foe who voted against its 2010 passage as a lawmaker, has assured people in his state that HIP 2.0 will remain even if the law is repealed, portraying it as an innovative state program that he suggests is unconnected to Obamacare.
In an op-ed published in the Indianapolis Star last year before he was tapped to be vice president, Pence said, “HIP will exist after the ACA.” though he conceded the program would be altered.
“Of course, when Obamacare is repealed, there will need to be a transition period...allowing a new administration in Washington the ability to reform Medicaid and provide states even more flexibility to innovate and strengthen programs like HIP 2.0,” Pence wrote.
The Trump administration and Republicans on Capitol Hill support making Medicaid a block grant program that would provide a set amount of funding to every state based on its number of enrollees. While federal spending would be capped, states would have more flexibility about how to spend the money.
Providers and caregivers in Indiana worry the switch will harm patients.
“Hopefully the ACA stays,” said Young of The Damien Center. “It was complicated and imperfect but now we’re used to it. More changes will do damage to our clients.
Even Republican state lawmakers are concerned about change.
“We've made great strides serving a very vulnerable, high-risk population with HIP 2.0,” said state Rep. Ed Clere, who chaired the House health committee around the time of the HIV outbreak.
Clere added that he is open to block granting, but "it shouldn't limit access, It has to be for the right reasons. It can’t just be about saving the federal government money."
The threat of Obamacare repeal comes even as Indiana officials are asking the Trump administration to tweak its own Medicaid expansion program. The updated waiver proposal vastly expands substance abuse treatment coverage to anyone in Medicaid and includes inpatient, as well as outpatient, treatment for substance abuse.
“The expanded access we seek through this waiver extension will prove critical” Pence’s successor, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, wrote in a letter to the Trump administration.
The waiver application, which was largely crafted by Seema Verma, Trump’s pick to lead CMS, is expected to be approved. However, if the ACA is repealed, the program’s future is unclear.
“It’s been a miracle for Indiana,” said Susan Jo Thomas, the executive director at Covering Kids and Families of Indiana. “I don’t want to talk or think about the consequences of losing it. It’s terrifying.”
President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager took a shot at his current staff and blamed them for not adequately preparing the president.
"The staff has probably not prepared him as well as they could have or should have," Corey Lewandowski said in an interview for David Axelrod’s “The Ax Files” podcast published Monday. Lewandowski cited the rollout of Trump’s immigration order, which was eventually halted by an appeals court, as an example.
During the hourlong interview, Lewandowski also criticized Trump’s senior staffers for their collective lack of government experience.
Lewandowski, who was fired from Trump’s campaign in June and now has a political consulting firm, has reportedly stayed close to Trump. He continued to praise Trump’s vision during “The Ax Files” interview, saying “you have a president who wants to move very quickly, who has a grand vision of what he wants to accomplish and is leaving the details to the staff to implement.”
Trump’s first month in office has been marked by controversy and turbulence. Besides his immigration order and reports of infighting among top staff, the president’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was asked last week to step down after reports surfaced that he had inappropriate conversations with the Russian ambassador during the transition and then misled Vice President Mike Pence about it.
Trump’s pick for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, also withdrew his nomination after Republican senators told the White House he wouldn’t have the votes to be confirmed.
On the morning of February 8, a civil servant from Buffalo, New York—a Somali by birth but an American by choice—walked into a heavily guarded airplane hangar in the battle-scarred capital of his native country where an important vote was about to take place. When he emerged that night, he was president. His surprise victory, which was celebrated with gunfire and camel slaughter in Mogadishu and high-fives at the Buffalo office of the New York Department of Transportation, where he was still technically employed as an equal opportunity compliance officer, was all the more remarkable because it came at the very moment a federal court in the U.S. was deciding the fate of a travel ban that targeted refugees exactly like him.
The story of how Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed came to be the leader of a country that is synonymous with anarchy and terrorism is both a classic American immigrant’s tale and one about the age-old conflict between basic democratic principles and the forces of political corruption. It begins in 1988, when Mohamed, then a first secretary for the Somali embassy in Washington, D.C., decided it was too dangerous to return home and applied for asylum. Back then, the U.S. was inclined to say yes to such requests.
Over the next 25 years, he earned degrees in history and political science, served on local campaigns and acted as a spokesman for other refugees as an elected official, slowly absorbing the lessons of civil society and the basics of American midmanagement that he knew he wanted one day to bring back to Somalia. He had become, in some ways, an export-ready product. Not soybeans or computer chips but democratic values.
“He’s always had an interest to go back and try to bring peace,” said Joel Giambra, a former county executive in Erie County, New York for whom Mohamed campaigned, then worked for, starting in 1999. “That was always his ambition.”
There are those who say that Mohamed, 54, who ran for president on an anti-corruption platform, bought his way to victory. Those same people say it’s the ironic but inevitable cost of doing business in a still desperately unstable country. But tainted results or not, some say Mohamed, with his decades of experience in American governance, could be the very partner the United States needs to fight international terrorism originating in the Horn of Africa. "What I think Mohamed brings is, hopefully, the technocratic understanding of how U.S. democracy works," said Muhammad Fraser-Rahim, a programs officer at the U.S. Institute for Peace. "I think that's a skill set that the two former presidents did not necessarily have."
In fact, the refugee-turned-president might just be one of the most powerful arguments against a travel ban like President Donald Trump’s, which would have barred Mohamed’s entry to the U.S.—it ultimately diminishes American influence abroad.
Mohamed had never been eager to leave Somalia. He was born into a well-connected clan, and his father, who spent much of his life under Italian colonial rule, was a government employee. He nicknamed his son “Farmaajo,” which is a local version of the Italian word for cheese, one of the boy’s favorite foods. After graduating from secondary school, Mohamed had access to a job with the foreign ministry, and in 1985 he was sent to Washington, D.C., to work in Somalia’s embassy. But in 1988, Mohamed criticized Somalia’s authoritarian government, and, fearing he could not return home safely, he requested political asylum in the United States.
Mohamed brought his wife to Buffalo, where a community of Somali refugees had begun to settle a few years earlier. They moved into public housing while he pursued a bachelor’s degree in history at New York State University in Buffalo. A year after his graduation, Mohamed’s fellow tenants elected him as resident commissioner, which automatically placed him on Buffalo’s Municipal Housing Authority. He earned a reputation as a community organizer who Buffalo immigrant and Muslim voters looked toward for leadership. In 1999, Mohamed rallied minority voters to support Giambra, a Democrat-turned-Republican running for county executive, and Mohamed registered as a Republican. When Giambra won, Mohamed took a job in his office as the county’s minority-business coordinator. He parlayed that, in 2002, into a similar job with New York’s Department of Transportation. For eight years, Mohamed enforced nondiscrimination and affirmative-action requirements among state-employed contractors—policies that are totally alien to Somalia, where government jobs depend on clan membership and public lands are practically given away to friends and allies of those in power.
The people Mohamed worked with during those years describe him as a kind and humble family man. But his ambition was evident, too, and it wasn’t just to improve the percentage of minority hires by DOT contractors. He earned a master’s degree in political science at New York State University in Buffalo. His thesis was titled: “U.S. Strategic Interest in Somalia.”
“We all got the sense that he just had a passion, and a heart for his country,” said Janine Shepherd, who worked in the cubicle next to Mohamed at the New York Department of Transportation. “He was always really bothered by the corruption there.”
“We had extensive conversations about developing countries that were authoritarian and what the steps were to achieve democracy,” said professor Donald Grinde, his thesis adviser. They discussed the different models of democratic governance, warlordism and religious extremism. “He understands that democracy is an imperfect exercise,” Grinde said, “both in Somalia and the United States. But I think he would think it’s far better than the alternative.”
In his thesis, Mohamed identified “Islamic extremists” as a major obstacle toward stability in Somalia. Al-Shabab and other terrorist organizations, he argued, were able to flourish because of the United States’ ill-advised policy in the region. “The Somali people have been victim of colonialism, dictatorship, and warlord thugs,” Mohamed wrote. “Now, they are at the crossroad of two extremist ideologies: George W. Bush's Christian ideology on one hand, and Islamic radicalism on the other, which want to wage a holy war on each other not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in Somalia as well. Sadly, the people who ultimately suffer most form the majority: they do not subscribe to these radical ideologies.”
In 2010, not even a year after receiving his master’s, Mohamed got a chance to talk about these issues with someone who actually could do something about them. The then-president of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, came to New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly, and Mohamed, via friends of friends, arranged a meeting. According to Mohamed, he wanted to give the president his advice—one manager to another—on what Somalia could due to cut down on corruption. The meeting went well; so well, in fact, that a few days later, Mohamed received a phone call from the president’s staff. He was on the president’s short list for prime minister.
After discussing it with his wife, Mohamed asked his supervisor for three weeks of vacation, explaining he would go to Mogadishu for an interview, and there was a chance he wouldn’t come back. A month later, in Somalia, Mohamed was sworn in to his new position.
Mohamed’s sudden ascension to prime minister wasn’t as strange as it seems.
Diaspora politicians make up a third of Somalia’s federal parliament. It’s one of the quirks of a country that doesn’t have the kind of governmental farm teams that more developed democracies do. A Somali-American who spent most of his life in California returned in 2011 to become the country’s defense minister, and this year, of Somalia’s 24 presidential candidates, nine held American passports. The most amazing homecoming story of all is probably from 1996, when tribal elders elected to the presidency Hussein Mohammed Farah, a 33-year-old corporal in the Marine Reserves who a year earlier was making $9 an hour as a clerk in the suburbs of Los Angeles. (In that instance, it probably helped that the marine’s father was Mohammed Farah Aidid, a self-declared president who died in a firefight a year earlier; Aidid was also the general who fought against the Marine Corps in the battle immortalized in the book and movie Black Hawk Down.)
In fact, among the seven countries included in Trump’s attempted ban, most boast influential officials who spent time in the United States, usually to attend school. Former prime ministers in Yemen and Libya attended American universities. One of them, Shukri Ghanem, was a reformer who worked, with some success, to push Muammar Qadhafi toward reconciliation with the west. Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister who oversaw negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal, went to a private high school in San Francisco and received a B.A. and M.A. from San Francisco State University and a Ph.D. from the University of Denver. An influential rebel leader from Sudan who was a key player in the country’s 2005 peace agreement, John Garang, attended Grinnell College in an Iowa town of 9,000 surrounded by cornfields.
Foreign leaders who’ve spent time in the United States can frequently, if not every time, give the United States government a leg up when conducting diplomacy. Giambra argues that that will definitely be the case with Mohamed: “I believe he would love the opportunity to collaborate with the United States,” he said. “He always said to me that the most effective way to eradicate terrorism in the United States is to stop it in Somalia.”
When Mohamed began his tenure as prime minister in September 2010, he did in fact work to push back al-Shabab, Somalia’s largest terrorist group, and he helped the army to establish the rule of law in 60 percent of Mogadishu. But what really won Mohamed the love of the people was his reputed distaste for corruption. He reduced the size of a bloated Cabinet from 39 to 18 and nominated others from the diaspora like himself. He required all of them to declare their assets and sign a code of ethics, a policy he possibly picked up from his time working for the New York state government, where he was required to sign a “Public Officers Law.” Mohamed also drew on his experience as a bureaucrat in Buffalo to establish a system in which commanding officers could not keep for themselves the stipends that were meant for rank-and-file soldiers.
Not everyone is convinced that Mohamed deserves the popular support he enjoys. “The improvements in Somalia have been in spite of the government, not because of the government,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. Pham believes that, for the most part, Mohamed benefited from low expectations and that credit for keeping the country stable should go to the African Union forces, which did much of the work to help secure Mogadishu and fight back al-Shabab. “Anybody would have been an improvement over the president that appointed him,” said Pham, “who was widely acknowledged to have stolen roughly 96 percent of bilateral aid.” That’s $72.7 million that simply went missing.
But regardless of one’s opinion on Mohamed’s efficacy, his status as a popular hero in Somalia was cemented in June 2011, when Mohamed fell victim to a backroom deal engineered by President Sharif Ahmed, the man who appointed Mohamed, and Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden, the speaker of parliament who was aspiring to the presidency himself and saw Mohamed as a roadblock to his ambitions. The two men agreed to postpone elections until August 2012, giving Ahmed another year of power. As part of the deal, he would have to dismiss his popular prime minister.
The blowback was immediate. Rioters took to the streets in support of Mohamed. They burned tires and set bonfires, blocking peacekeepers from getting to their destinations. Soldiers, who Mohamed had won the loyalty of by guaranteeing their pay, abandoned their posts and joined the protests, waving pictures of Mohamed above their heads.
The deed was done, however, and Mohamed no longer had a reason to stay in Somalia. He returned to his wife and kids in Buffalo, and resumed his position as a regional compliance specialist for the New York Department of Transportation, with a salary of $83,954 a year and the promise of a state pension after only seven more years of service.
“He wasn’t the same,” said Galloway, describing an encounter with Mohamed after he had returned to Buffalo. “You could tell within his demeanor that he wasn’t back in Buffalo without intention to return to Somalia.”
Giambra agreed: “After he came back, he was disappointed, but he was committed and determined to go back and give it another chance.”
“We were all a little surprised,” said Shepherd, describing the moment Mohamed returned to his cubicle in Buffalo. “We could all sense from him that there was something more out there for him.”
Mohamed was glad to be reunited with his family, and there were some things he definitely didn’t miss about being prime minister. Five of his bodyguards had been killed, and he never forgot the sound of bullets hitting the reinforced windows of his house. But his colleagues were right that he hadn’t given up on his political dreams in Somalia. He decided to run for president in 2012. Mohamed, along with his former Cabinet members, established a new political party called Tayo—meaning “quality” in Somali. Mohamed lost in the first round of voting, winning barely 5 percent of the vote. As a parting shot—payback might be a better term—he threw his support behind the candidate running against the incumbent president, the man who had dismissed him as prime minister. Mohamed’s man won.
Mohamed wasn’t done. Almost immediately, he began to lay the groundwork for another run. He made trips to Somali communities around the world, places such as Minneapolis, Columbus and even Oslo, Norway. These are where many of the kingmakers who can decide Somali elections live. Diaspora communities are also a great source for campaign contributions. In 2015, he stepped up his campaigning, frequently taking leave from work. “He traveled extensively in preparation for this,” said Giambra. “He was very methodical and deliberate.”
Mohamed was using a playbook familiar to any American campaign, but news agencies were reporting that the election was shaping up to be a classically Somalian affair, possibly one of the most corrupt in the country’s checkered history. Security was so bad that a national election couldn’t be held. Just two weeks before voting, a car bomb attack on a Mogadishu hotel killed 28. That meant that once again it would be up to the 328 members of parliament, a notoriously bribe-susceptible group of politicians. Market prices for a vote were high, observers said. The incumbent president, who by all reports had only exacerbated corruption in Somalia during his tenure, was widely reported to have offered $50,000 to anyone who voted for him in the secret ballot.
On Election Day, parliamentarians met in a heavily guarded airport hangar in Mogadishu. African Union peacekeepers stood watch outside, wary of attacks by al-Shabab. The parliamentarians were forbidden from taking large amounts of cash or cellphones into the hangar, lest the voting floor devolve into a televised auction for votes as it had in the past. In the first round of voting, 17 of 21 candidates were eliminated. Then an additional candidate withdrew, leaving three contenders: Mohamed, incumbent president Mohamud, and former president Ahmed—the same man who had appointed and dismissed Mohamed seven years earlier.
To the shock of international news outlets, few of whom considered Mohamed a major contender, the bureaucrat from Buffalo won more than 50 percent of votes in the second round. Former President Ahmed was eliminated, and while the rules required that the eventual victor win two-thirds of votes, President Mohamud, who trailed Mohamed significantly in the second round, conceded defeat. While thousands rushed into the streets of Mogadishu and soldiers celebrated by firing their automatic weapons into the air, Mohamed declared in a televised victory speech that, “This is the beginning of unity for the Somali nation, the beginning of the fight against al-Shabab and corruption.”
News reports largely confirmed that significant amounts of money had changed hands, despite the attempts to limit the vote-buying. According to Abdi Ismail Samatar, a University of Minnesota professor who was part of a commission appointed by parliament to observe the election process and stop the exchange of cash on the voting floor, there is little reason to believe any of the major candidates—Mohamed included—had abstained. “I am quite confident that all of the four or five major candidates were deeply implicated in the buying of votes,” Samatar told POLITICO. “That includes the incoming President Mohamed.”
Mohamed and his office could not be reached for comment.
But the reports of a corrupt election have not dimmed public enthusiasm for the civil servant who ran on the platform to clean up the Mogadishu swamp. Celebrations in the streets revealed a populace that was ecstatic to have a president who won their affection years ago—not a blatantly corrupt consensus choice of the clan elders.
“Farmaajo has come back to the country and the people are united,” a young Somali man told Agence France-Presse. “Welcome, Farmaajo, we are under the sun because of you.”
U.S. officials might be feeling equally sunny about his prospects. Here is a man well-versed in the ways of American politics, who is deeply popular in his country, vocally supportive of beating back the forces of Islamic terrorism and committed to bringing stability to the failing institutions that often enable groups like al-Shabab to thrive.
"You have someone who is a success story who can then talk about, 'Hey, America is not what I thought it was. They opened their arms and now I understand how American democracy works,'" said Muhammad Fraser-Rahim. "I think that is only a win for the U.S."
"I think there was a degree of pleasant surprise when he was elected president," said Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. "Not just because of his connections to the U.S., but because of his previous stint as prime minister."
Of course, Mohamed’s election alone will not solve Somalia’s problems. According to John Mukum Mbaku of the Brookings Institution, Mohamed has no hope of clamping down on corruption if he cannot strengthen the weak institutions that enable it. And as president in a constitutional system that depends on foreign financial support, he cannot enact reform through force of will alone. “Given the way that Somalia is, effective reform in the country will require the assistance of much more than just Mohamed himself,” said Mbaku. Others, like Pham, question whether Mohamed will be capable of reform at all. “We should entertain no delusions about the sort of partner we have in Farmaajo—and his limitations. Some of the over-the-top optimism of the last few days is simply not justified.”
Downie put it bluntly: "You could put Nelson Mandela in as president of Somalia and probably the same mess would persist."
Still, the enthusiasm, justified or not, has spread. Even Abdi Ismail Samatar, the election observer who doubts Mohamed won a clean victory, finds reason for hope. “There is an incredible public hunger for a clean government,” said Samatar, “and therefore, regardless of what the process was like, and any money he used, there is a fantastic opportunity for him to march the country in a different direction.”
On his first day in office, Mohamed did take a small step forward. Avoiding any appearance of double-dipping, he resigned from the New York Department of Transportation.
Whenever a new American president takes office, or even well beforehand, analysts and academics rush to discern their foreign policy “doctrine”—a grand theory that connects what might otherwise appear to be a Pollock-like splattering of dots.
The Bush doctrine, for instance, was supposedly about the rejection of multilateral constraints on American power, or maybe it was a willingness to wage pre-emptive war to promote “freedom abroad,” or protect the U.S. homeland; the Obama doctrine, depending on whom you ask, placed a new emphasis on “dignity” at home and around the world, sought to revitalize diplomacy as a tool of American leadership, displayed reluctance about using force abroad (except for the many instances when it didn’t) and was eventually boiled down by the boss to “don’t do stupid shit.”
You can see where I’m going here: This kind of exercise is often a fool’s errand. As a big nation with myriad interests, many of which inevitably come into conflict, even in the most regimented of times, U.S. engagement with the world doesn’t lend itself to theoretical coherence. Unlike in the imaginary world of political theory, real presidents rarely have doctrines; more often, they have a collection of strategies that they struggle to implement and an endless series of reactive scrambles to events.
The present era is no different in that regard. What is different is that right now not only is there no discernible doctrine guiding President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, the United States currently has no real foreign policy at all. By that I mean not that the policies are objectionable, or that the Trump team is struggling with the learning curve each new administration faces at the outset, as it reviews its predecessors’ approach and settles on its own. Rather, I mean that we are experiencing an unprecedented degree of policy incoherence on virtually every major issue the country faces.
And so it was left to Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday to travel to the Munich Security Conference, the most important annual gathering of politicians and national security wonks, to reassure America’s increasingly nervous European partners that things in Washington are under control. The meetings can be insufferable, but they are also an important chance, especially at the start of an administration, to help the world understand what policies it will pursue.
Pence did perfectly well, in what must have felt like Mission Impossible. He told America's allies what they wanted—actually, needed—to hear: that the United States would continue to “hold Russia accountable” for its aggression in Ukraine, that we remained deeply committed to the NATO alliance, that the values underpinning transatlantic relations remain sacrosanct.
The problem is, no one really knows if Pence speaks for the administration on foreign policy—or, for that matter, if anyone does. Policy is, at its core, a function of what the government does and what it says. While it is too soon for the Trump administration to have done much, what is being said is either nothing or completely contradictory things. Pence’s message about shared values was undercut both before and minutes after his remarks by President Trump, with his latest tweets attacking the mainstream media as “fake news” and, more outrageously, “the enemy of the American people.”
There are many more such examples of incoherence, on virtually every major issue:
On Russia, leaving aside (to the extent that is possible) the cataclysmic hacking scandal and the Trump team’s potential collusion in it, it is hard to say what U.S. policy is at the moment. The president and his counselor Kellyanne Conway say the administration will at least consider easing U.S. sanctions on Russia, which were put in place in response to destabilizing actions in Ukraine that have, if anything, only escalated. But Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, said the sanctions will remain in place until Russia meets its commitments to help end the Ukraine crisis. Meanwhile, the president alternately muses about a kinder, gentler relationship with President Vladimir Putin and then contemplates shooting a Russian ship “out of the water”—in the same press conference, no less. To heap further confusion onto this mess of contradictions, Defense Secretary James Mattis said during his confirmation that any list of top threats to the United States “starts with Russia.”
On Israel, Trump made a confounding, Dr. Seussian statement about the peace process—“I'm looking at one state and two state and I like the one that both parties like”—while standing next to a bemused Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Did that mean, as many news accounts suggested, that he abandoned the longstanding U.S. commitment to Palestinian statehood? Was he simply saying, in true dealmaker fashion, that what’s good enough for the Israelis and the Palestinians is good enough for him? Was it a throwaway line to save Netanyahu some political heartburn back at home? Leave it to Haley to again clean up for (or contradict) the president the next day, telling reporters, “the two-state solution is what we support.” Then there is the contortionist act performed under oath by Trump’s acerbic nominee for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a pro-settlement activist who has referred to left-leaning Jews as “worse than Kapos,” a.k.a. the Jews who aided the Nazis during the Holocaust, because they urge Israel to make concessions for peace. During an apologetic hearing on Thursday, he called the two-state solution “the best possibility for peace in the region.”
Parsing the Trump administration’s views on Israeli settlements is no easier. Press Secretary Sean Spicer has said “we don’t believe they are an impediment to peace,” that they are “not helpful” and that the administration “has not taken an official position”—all in a single statement. Trump, for his part, told a right-wing Israeli newspaper, “I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.” A few days later, he suggested to Netanyahu, with cameras rolling, that he may want “hold off on settlements for a bit.” Netanyahu’s facial expression suggested: On the other hand, I might not.
On Iran, the Trump administration clearly does not like the nuclear deal (“worst agreement ever negotiated” is a popular refrain), while reportedly reassuring European partners, who were part of those negotiations, that he plans to uphold it. They don’t much like the Iranian government either. Before he resigned 24 days into his tenure after lying to the vice president, Trump’s national security adviser put Iran “on notice,” without offering any explanation at all as to what that means or what the consequences might be. “The statement stands for itself,” an administration official told baffled reporters on background. “Iran clearly understands that there was a communication today to get their attention.” No doubt they understand that much. But to what end? The administration isn’t offering any more information about its Iran policy publicly, nor is there any evidence they are clarifying things privately with Iranian officials, which might help avoid an unintended conflict.
On Syria, Trump and the departed Michael Flynn clearly think it is a good idea to work with Russia to fight the Islamic State—after all, that was the main excuse Flynn offered for his myriad conversations with Russian officials. But Mattis ruled out such cooperation until Russia can “prove itself” willing to abide by international law. Trump has also long touted his opposition to U.S. intervention in Middle Eastern conflicts, usually in the context of falsely claiming to have opposed the Iraq war before the invasion. Then on Wednesday, a leak from the Pentagon indicated the administration is considering a major deployment of ground troops to Syria. What about the underlying civil war between the regime and opposition that is responsible for the lion’s share of killing and humanitarian devastation? No clear position or role so far—the Trump team told the State Department’s Syria experts not to attend the most recent peace talks in Kazakhstan.
The list could go on and on. Trump trashed Japan for months, then spent nearly an entire weekend, replete with a Florida getaway and a surprise appearance at a wedding at Mar-a-Lago, joined at the hip with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He repeatedly called into question the One China policy that underpins U.S. relations with the most populous country on Earth, then endorsed it on a phone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping with no explanation. His defense secretary gave a warm and desperately needed embrace of a NATO alliance Trump recently called “obsolete,” before seeming to call into question the U.S. commitment to it if its members don’t start increasing their defense spending.
Did that amount to placing a condition on the previously iron-clad American commitment to collective self defense of alliance members? That would be a good question for the State Department. And there are many others.
But unfortunately the State Department, which for years has subjected its spokesperson to near-daily grillings that are far more policy-oriented than the White House equivalent, has not held an on-the-record briefing since January 19, the day before the inauguration. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has yet to take questions from the press, or even say anything substantive in public since his well-received remarks to the workforce on his first day in office. Tillerson, who many observers and Foggy Bottom employees hoped would help put the State Department back into the center of foreign policy discussions, has been undercut by reports that he and other senior officials were out of the loop for key decisions, like the botched Yemen raid and the badly bungled travel ban, and by his absence from Trump’s meetings with Netanyahu, Abe and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
As my former colleague Jen Psaki has pointed out, this is far from merely a communications problem. Whose job is it to get a handle on all of this, crack Cabinet heads together, surface the best arguments and forge consensus around policy positions that can then be explained? That would be the national security adviser, a position that is currently vacant with the departure of Flynn, whose tenure was preoccupied with things like FBI interviews, defending his conduct to superiors, battling for White House turf with chief strategist Steve Bannon, misrepresenting (and then correcting) his story to journalists, and, eventually, resigning. Without a credible decision-making process in place, the president is left to make policy on the fly, sometimes even in public. Perhaps unsurprisingly, what is widely considered to be the plum job in foreign policy is proving difficult to fill.
In almost any other administration, much of the work of establishing basic foreign policy views would have been done already—not in the first month in office, but long before that, through working groups of policy experts convened by the campaign. The Trump campaign didn’t bother with that, either because they didn’t think it would help them win (which is probably true) or because they assumed that in the unlikely event of a victory they would quickly catch up (which was false). Career officials in the national security agencies might have been able to help fill the void left by an absence of policy leadership, and by the baffling failure of the White House to even nominate people for the vast majority of senior political appointments. But instead, experts with decades of experience have been ignored, vilified or pushed aside, to be replaced, at least in theory, by appointees who either have yet to materialize or have arrived at the agencies without being told what their jobs are supposed to be.
As a result, not only is there nothing even close to a Trump doctrine, which would be more than anyone should expect, but even saying what the administration’s policy is on any given major issue is virtually impossible. This is not just embarrassing, but dangerous. The world will not wait until we get our act together. Left to their own guesswork, adversaries and allies can easily miscalculate the strength of our support or opposition. And other nations—friends like Germany, but also competitors like China—will move to fill any vacuum left by the confusion over America’s basic approach. All this suggests that the handwringing during the campaign about the potential for Trump to squander America’s global position by deliberately shifting the country toward a posture of isolation was misplaced. What is emerging is something else entirely; an abdication of our leadership by default.
Retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward spent much of the past decade leading fellow SEAL commandos into some of the darkest corners on earth. He was deputy commander of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), in charge of “black ops” counterterrorism units such as the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, and he spent over six years fighting terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And yet when offered the prestigious position of national security adviser to President Donald Trump, Harward ultimately decided it was too risky. After all, his predecessor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the former JSOC intelligence chief who also served lengthy combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, lasted less than a month on the job.
Harward’s decision Thursday evening to decline the plum position leaves former CIA director and retired Army General David Petraeus, and retired Lt. General Keith Kellogg, acting national security adviser, as the leading candidates for the job. On Friday, Trump announced on Twitter that Kellogg “was very much in play for NSA – as are three others.”
Flynn’s resignation and Harward’s surprise rejection in a single week raise the question of whether even decorated flag officers can bring order to a West Wing that is dominated by an unpredictable and undisciplined commander in chief and already beset by controversy, backstabbing and competing power centers. In just their first month in power, Trump and his inner circle have provoked a bare-knuckle fight with the U.S. intelligence community that has led to nearly unprecedented leaks of damaging classified information; fumbled the premature rollout of an immigration ban that sparked widespread condemnation and was thwarted by a federal court; and became embroiled in murky dealings with the Russians that are now the subject of multiple investigations and led to Flynn’s resignation.
To steady that ship, the next national security adviser will first have to gain the trust of the mercurial commander in chief and quickly establish cooperative working relationships and decision-making processes with other White House power players who have closer and deeper ties to the president, including Vice President Mike Pence; Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon; White House chief of staff Reince Priebus; senior policy adviser Stephen Miller; and close Trump confidant and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Given the gulf in views between establishment conservatives Pence and Priebus, populist ideologue Bannon, hard-right policy wonk Miller, and wild card Kushner, finding firm common ground and building consensus might not even be possible or, at least in the eyes of the one person that matters, all that desirable.
“Donald Trump learned about political infighting on ‘The Apprentice,’ where his management technique was to provoke fights between the different candidates and teams, and then decide who prevails,” says Robert Bear, a former Middle East case officer for the CIA. “I don’t see him changing that style in the White House. When was the last time you saw a 70-year-old man change for the better?”
According to news reports, Vice Admiral Harward was concerned he would not be able to put his own team in place, especially after indications that Flynn’s deputy national security adviser, K.T. McFarland, was going to stay. Red flags were also raised weeks earlier, when Trump took the unprecedented step of making his political strategist, Bannon, the populist provocateur and former head of Breitbart News, a formal member of the National Security Council’s Principals Committee, on a par with four-star generals and Cabinet officials on the most important decision-making body in government.
“Trump criticized Obama as having the worst national security policies, but a big reason those policies were not more successful on issues like Afghanistan and Iraq was because military advice was too often marginalized,” says Kori Schake, who served on the Bush administration’s National Security Council and is currently a research fellow at the Hoover Institution think tank. “With that new NSC directive, Trump opened himself up to the same criticism that he is increasing the role of a political operative like Bannon in national security decision-making.”
In considering a roster of retired flag officers for the job, Trump has once again revealed a strong preference for populating his national security apparatus with military types. Harward was close to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, a retired Marine general, and reportedly had the support of retired Marine General John Kelly, head of the Department of Homeland Security. If the next national security adviser is another retired general, that could at the least facilitate a more orderly and disciplined decision-making process by strong-willed and potentially like-minded officials.
“What you need in a national security adviser is a good bureaucratic manager who is knowledgeable about world and security affairs, and who can help secure a consensus among strong-minded individuals who lead important components of the national security apparatus,” former Defense Secretary William Cohen wrote in an email. “His or her job is to limit the times that consensus cannot be achieved and issues must therefore be pushed to the president for resolution. It doesn’t necessarily take a military officer to do that job, but the most successful have had stars on their sleeves, with [retired Air Force Lieutenant General] Brent Scowcroft, and [former Army General] Colin Powell being the best examples.”
Of course there is another, more cautionary example that Harward may have had in mind when he declined the job — that of retired General Jim Jones, a former commandant of the Marine Corps and President Barack Obama’s first national security adviser. Jones is credited with initially making the national security trains run on time, but he was ultimately marginalized by the tight inner circle of holdovers from Obama’s campaign and Senate staff.
“A national security adviser has to successfully manage three key constituencies: first and foremost his relationships with the president, but also his relations with other senior officials in the West Wing, and with Cabinet officials in various agencies,” says Peter Feaver, who served on theNational Security Council under President George W. Bush and directs Duke University’s Program in American Grand Strategy. “In the case of General Jones, at some point it became clear that as an outsider he was unable to break into that inner circle of people who had long ago locked in their relationships with President Obama. As a result Jones failed to gain the president’s full trust, and thus lost effectiveness.”
If the next national security adviser is indeed another retired flag officer, another pitfall he or she will have to avoid is “group think” in a national security apparatus already heavily leaning in the Pentagon’s direction. As the old saying goes, if all you have is hammers, then every problem looks like a nail.
“I’m not really worried about the Trump administration having a ‘militarized foreign policy’, but there are potential downsides to the military point of view being over-represented in national security deliberations,” says Feaver. “Effective statecraft requires that an administration integrate all tools of American power, to include diplomacy and economic statecraft. If the knowledge base of top officials and advisers is heavily weighted towards the military that can be harder to do. Not impossible, but more difficult.”
In the recent Center for American Progress report, “Process Makes Perfect: Best Practices in the Art of National Security Policymaking,” authors Schake and William Wechsler interviewed former national security advisers searching for lessons learned at the nexus of American power. The report’s key takeaway is that any deliberative and decision-making process put in place by the next national security adviser will fail unless it matches the commander in chief’s management style and personal proclivities.
That’s an “enormous challenge” with Trump, notes Schake, who observes that the president’s management style is to “create competing power centers producing multiple options that maximize his freedom of action, and allow him to be unpredictable.” Trump revels in his unpredictability, but it’s a very costly and risky way for a great power to pursue national objectives, Schake says, because friends can’t synchronize their actions to support you, and adversaries don’t know where the boundaries of acceptable behavior lie.
What if, Schake wonders, the next national security adviser tries to implement a more disciplined decision-making process, “only to discover that President Trump really doesn’t want to be disciplined?”
“Our mistake may be expecting this White House to follow a linear process where mistakes are made, lessons are learned and they steadily get better,” she says. “The reality may be a more scattershot cycle of ‘Wash, Rinse, Repeat.’”
Inside an American national security community unnerved by President Donald Trump’s careening approach to world affairs, Defense Secretary James Mattis is seen by many as his strongest Cabinet pick—no less, some whisper, than the potential savior of the nation.
Given the caliber of many of Trump’s Cabinet picks, being qualified and decent already puts one near the top. And Mattis may well prove to be a good deal more than that. So far, he’s been dispatched to reassure U.S. allies in Asia and has talked Trump out of terrible ideas like reviving torture as an instrument of American policy and ripping up the Iran deal. But this week, Mattis misstepped.
At a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, echoing Trump’s past promises to get tough with allies, the Pentagon chief issued an ultimatum: Cough up more in defense spending, or the U.S. will turn away from the transatlantic defense alliance. Mattis’s remarks may have pleased the president—who trashed NATO as “obsolete” during the 2016 campaign—but they renewed the unease in European capitals, where the hope has been that Trump’s bark will turn out to be worse than his bite.
Mattis’s recitation of his boss’s threat, though delivered in a gentlemanly manner—was an error. It’s not that we shouldn’t encourage deeper investments in defense spending among our European allies. That is a well-established and salutary goal of U.S. foreign policy—no less an eminent figure than Bob Gates, hardly a careless bomb-thrower, delivered similar warnings as defense secretary for presidents of both parties. A handful of NATO allies have made progress on the 2 percent of GDP target in recent years, but others need to do more. So it is right for Mattis to press them to boost their spending. But Gates, who already had well-established relationships across the Atlantic, sent his message in a much different context—before Russia invaded Ukraine and meddled in the U.S. elections, and before there was an American president who talked down NATO and cozied up to Vladimir Putin. So here are three reasons why Mattis’s ultimatum was ill-advised:
First, the new defense secretary’s chief goal at his first meeting with his European counterparts should have been reassurance—soothing allies who are wary of the policy choices of an erratic U.S. president and unnerved by his odd relationship with the Kremlin. The message allies needed to hear—and that Mattis surely delivered behind closed doors—is that he and others in the administration remain sober about the threat to European security posed by a revanchist Russia that continues, for example, to attempt to redraw European borders by force in Ukraine. This is not about some kind of concern for their emotional health. It’s because an alliance depends on the confidence that allies have in it, and as its strongest member, the U.S. plays a unique role in setting the agenda within NATO, and in maintaining confidence in it. In his public remarks, Mattis did emphasize at length the importance of the transatlantic alliance and of its role as a bulwark of European security, but this message was overshadowed by the main headlines that arose from his visit: that the U.S. might “moderate our commitment” to NATO.
Second, such public ultimatums are unlikely to persuade Europeans to spend more on their own defense and could inadvertently provoke divisions in NATO, thus advancing one of Putin’s chief aims. Getting NATO allies to bolster their defenses is a political goal—it requires persuading finance ministers, defense ministers, prime ministers and parliaments in democratic countries to hike taxes, borrow, or make spending cuts in other areas. “Because the Americans threatened us if we don’t do it” is unlikely to be the most effective or sustainable political argument to persuade European parliamentarians and their constituents, weaned on a well-earned skepticism of war, to support deeper defense investments.
Ultimatums are cheap; they need only be declared. Politics is hard, but it’s what America needs to do: In Berlin, Copenhagen, Paris and Madrid, U.S. diplomats have to continue to highlight the advantages that all allies get from their participation in NATO—including training with the best military in the world and an improved ability to protect their people against terrorism. And sure, we should also make the point behind the ultimatum: European security is a common asset, and it demands a shared investment. But I worry that in this era of populist opportunism, ultimatums will provoke some—a minority, but a vocal one—in some European countries to challenge their governments’ engagement with NATO and the U.S., not deepen it. There will always be differences within the alliance, but public differences come at a cost. They give the Kremlin openings into which wedges can be inserted. At a time when Moscow has already interfered in our own elections and is actively meddling in several in Europe, we should be particularly mindful of these political dynamics. We can’t get European countries to spend more if they’re too busy squabbling among themselves—or with us.
Third, it was a mistake because in a negotiation, you don’t make a threat you’re not willing to follow through on—red lines are a test of others’ willingness to comply, but also of our own credibility. Mattis is, by all accounts, a deep-thinking strategist and a clever tactician, so I suspect he agrees that there is no foreseeable circumstance in which “moderating our commitment” to NATO could possibly be in the U.S. interest. As a former U.S. diplomat in Vienna, I get how frustrating it can be to deal with the complexities of European politics. But, as American leaders have understood for decades, NATO is not a charity project for Europe. The alliance was created under U.S. leadership and built through U.S. investment. It’s the most successful military alliance in the history of the world—an indispensable factor in the advance of democracy and open markets in Europe and of building a rules-based international system, all of which contribute substantially to U.S. security and prosperity. We invest in our defense and in NATO for our own reasons, not because we’re being nice to Europe. To scale back our commitment out of frustration with our allies would be to cut off our nose to spite our face.
Avoiding ultimatums doesn’t mean that we soften our approach—it just means we need a more sophisticated diplomatic and defense strategy to achieve our objectives: one that focuses on the affirmative benefits that NATO delivers and our common interest in the future of the alliance. Secretary Mattis is a smart, well-read person and a student of geopolitics; he’ll get it right the next time.
TEL AVIV—It was vague, like so many of Donald Trump’s pronouncements, and yet it was the president of the United States, standing at a podium in the White House, putting his imprimatur on a one-state solution. “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like, I can live with either one,” he said on Wednesday, during a joint news conference with his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
For two decades, the two-state solution has been the focal point of American policy in the Middle East. Bill Clinton had the Camp David summit, and his “Clinton parameters.” George W. Bush had the “road map for peace” and the Annapolis conference. Barack Obama had two rounds of U.S.-led talks (both abject failures without catchy names). His secretary of state, John Kerry, devoted his final major speech to the subject, an anguished 75-minute cri de coeur aimed at Israel’s right-wing government. Less than a month into his presidency, Trump said he would be willing to cast aside those efforts.
On the Israeli side, you could get whiplash trying to keep up with Netanyahu’s stated positions. He accepted the two-state solution in a landmark 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University; renounced it shortly before Israel’s 2015 general election; and then renounced his renunciation a few days later, after he had secured a fourth term. In December, he told CBS that he was still committed to “two states for two peoples.” In January, he told members of his Likud party that he would offer the Palestinians only a “state-minus.” And on Monday afternoon, boarding his plane to Washington, he ducked the question altogether.
Polls still find that majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians support a two-state solution, but only in theory; their support drops off rapidly when they are asked to contemplate the details of such an agreement. Israel’s growing conservative faction certainly does not support it. And while the one-state option still has the support of Israel’s center-left, and an older generation of Palestinians, even they sound increasingly pessimistic about its prospects. A single-state solution presents its own complications, of course—and yet, it might be more politically realistic, better in tune with the changing mood on both sides.
But here’s the key question: What would a one-state solution even look like?
The peace process has long been viewed as a dichotomy: either Israel and Palestine agree to two states, or one binational state. “The only alternative to two sovereign and democratic states on the 1967 border is one single secular and democratic state with equal rights for everyone,” Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said on Wednesday.
But the reality is slightly more complex. If a one-state solution is on the table, Israel has three broad choices. It can proceed with an equitable one-state solution—though not necessarily a binational state. It can take the opposite tack, and explicitly condemn the Palestinians to statelessness. Or it can attempt to muddle along with the status quo. And with Team Trump removing itself to the sidelines (“We're not going to dictate what the terms of peace will be,” a senior official said on Tuesday night), any of these is possible.
Option 1: Switzerland on the Mediterranean
A few months ago, I had coffee in Ramallah with a senior Palestinian official, one of the elderly men who have been involved in the peace process since before the Oslo Accords were signed in the early 1990s. He spent a half hour detailing all the reasons why a two-state solution was unworkable: the ceaseless growth of settlements, the rise of the right in Israel, the political and geographic divisions within Palestine. When he finished his grim litany, I asked whether he still supports the two-state solution. “Of course,” he said.
For decades the two-state solution has been the centerpiece of U.S. policy, and the goal of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. The leadership in Ramallah, and the aging center-left “peace camp” in Jerusalem, cannot conceive of an alternative vision—even when they admit that the two-state solution is no longer realistic.
But an eclectic group of young activists, religious settlers, the occasional ex-militant and even a few graying center-leftists are bringing new thinking to an old debate. Calling themselves "Two States, One Homeland," this grass-roots group is trying to find another approach to the conflict: a confederation.
The two-state solution is unpopular, above all, because it requires dividing the land. A one-state outcome creates a different problem, one of identity: After decades of conflict, neither Israelis nor Palestinians trust that they would truly have national rights in a binational state.
A confederation would try to dodge both issues. Like the two-state solution, it would create two political entities, Israel and Palestine, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. But the citizens of both would enjoy freedom of movement: A Palestinian from Nablus could commute to work in Tel Aviv each day, and vice versa.
Israeli settlers could stay in their homes in the West Bank, while a proportionate number of Palestinians could take up residence inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders, affording a limited “right of return.” Jerusalem would be a shared, undivided city. The two governments would share responsibility for overlapping issues, like national defense and infrastructure.
The concept is still in its infancy, but it has a number of high-profile supporters—many of them from the far right of the political spectrum. “It would mean creating an entirely new system of government— something we’ve never seen before,” Dani Dayan, formerly a leading member of the Yesha Council, the umbrella movement for Israeli settlers, told me during the last election, when he made a short-lived bid for a Knesset seat. “But it’s more realistic than the two-state solution.” (Dayan is now Israel’s consul general in New York, and has said he will support whatever happens to be government’s policy; he discussed the confederation idea before his appointment.)
It would be implemented slowly, supporters say, to build trust on both sides. But it would end with equal rights for all. Reuven Rivlin, the Israeli president, has long supported such an outcome: He is a lifelong Likudnik who opposes Palestinian statehood, but also a classical liberal, one of the few right-wing politicians in Israel who still speaks passionately about equality and against racism. At a conference in Jerusalem this week, the day before Netanyahu and Trump met in Washington, he repeated his call for this kind of one-state outcome. “Applying sovereignty to an area gives citizenship to all those who live there,” he said. “There is not [a different] law for Israelis and non-Israelis.”
Option 2: A South African model
Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners, flush with enthusiasm about the Trump administration, wanted him to use his first White House meeting to bury the two-state solution altogether. At the head of the group was Naftali Bennett, the leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, who warned that “the Earth will shake” if Netanyahu even mentioned a Palestinian state.
Bennett’s faction is small―it controls just eight seats in the 120-member Knesset―but it increasingly sets the agenda for the broader Israeli right, at least on issues of land and peace. And at the top of his agenda is annexation.
More than 30 years ago, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, which were captured during the 1967 war against its Arab neighbors. The Knesset applied Israeli law to the territories, and the citizens of both became eligible to apply for Israeli citizenship. But for a variety of reasons, from diplomacy to demography, Israel did not annex the West Bank. While it has taken a number of de facto steps toward annexation, the territory is not formally a part of Israel.
Bennett wants to change that. His party already has drawn up legislation to annex Ma'ale Adumim, one of the largest settlements in the West Bank―a first step, he believes, toward claiming the entirety of “Area C,” a designation from the Oslo Accords that covers roughly two-thirds of the land in the occupied West Bank. “Israel has annexed areas in the past. The world does not recognize it to this very day, but we do,” he says. “Even if we can’t do it tomorrow, it’s a vision that I’m working towards.”
Despite its size, Area C contains only 10 percent of the West Bank’s Palestinian population, fewer than 300,000 people (there are no precise figures). Under Bennett’s “sovereignty plan,” they would be offered full Israeli citizenship, though it’s unclear how many would accept: Most of the residents of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights opted to keep their Jordanian and Syrian nationalities. The other 2.5 million Palestinians in the rest of the West Bank would remain stateless. They would have a limited self-government, something like the Palestinian Authority, a donor-supported body that struggles to provide even a modicum of basic services.
“It’s less than a state, in the sense that it’s not open gates for millions of descendants of refugees, and [without] an army, but barring that, it’s full self-governance,” Bennett says. “It’s autonomy on steroids, for lack of a better term.”
The less-than-a-state would not even be contiguous: The pockets of Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank would all be separated by Israeli territory. Nor would it be economically viable. Israel would get the Jordan Valley, the breadbasket of the West Bank, and the Dead Sea, with its lucrative tourism and mining industries. The Palestinians would get a constellation of urban centers, and their economy, already kept afloat by foreign aid and a bloated government payroll, would become even more stagnant. “The name for this is bantustans,’” says Mohammad Shtayyeh, a Palestinian economist.
About 40 percent of Israelis, and a majority of those who identify as right-wing, support large-scale annexation. Netanyahu does not, because he fears the diplomatic consequences—but many of the populist politicians vying to replace him do not share his reservations.
Option 3: The not-so-status quo
An unusual advertisement started to appear in cities across Israel last month, on roadside billboards and in the pages of leading newspapers. It featured a photo of a flag-waving Palestinian crowd, with a message written in bold, red Arabic script: “Soon, we will be the majority.” Most Israeli Jews cannot read Arabic. So a Hebrew footnote urged them to dial a hotline, where a retired Israeli general named Amnon Reshef delivered a recorded warning.
“Are you sick of these Palestinian billboards? So are we,” he said. “They will disappear in a matter of days. What will not disappear is the millions of Palestinians who live in the West Bank.”
Israeli liberals hated the ads: They saw the message as profoundly racist, portraying the Palestinians as an implacable threat. But the ad wasn’t aimed at them. It was aimed at the center, which pays lip service to a two-state solution but does little to actually advance one. The ex-generals who sponsored the billboards, like their counterparts in Ramallah, believe they are running out of time to sell Israelis, who are becoming more and more comfortable with the current state of events, on a partition.
Because the status quo—a single state in which Israel continues to expand slowly into Palestinian territory—in its own way, is also a one-state solution—not a dramatic one, but a solution, nonetheless. It’s also the most likely option, for the foreseeable future. Netanyahu has pursued it for the past eight years. His main challenger in the polls, the centrist Yair Lapid, would probably take a similar tack; he speaks about the conflict only in the vaguest of generalities.
Over the past three months alone, Israel has approved the construction of 6,000 new homes in the occupied territories. Netanyahu has announced plans to build a new settlement in the West Bank, the first since the 1990s. And the Knesset passed a law to retroactively authorize dozens of “illegal outposts,” wildcat settlements that were built without the government’s approval.
To be fair, the outpost law will almost certainly be struck down by the Supreme Court, and much of the new construction is in the larger settlement “blocs,” which will likely remain part of Israel in a final agreement. But it is nonetheless another step toward cementing the Israeli presence in what is meant to be a future Palestinian state. Each new outpost or batch of homes makes it harder to argue for limits on the next round, and it raises the cost, both human and financial, of a two-state solution.
Last month, after a two-year delay, the Israeli government finally carried out a court order and evacuated Amona, an outpost that was built illegally on privately owned Palestinian land. In the days before it was demolished, hundreds of young Israelis flocked there to show their support. More than a few pointed to the adjacent hilltop, where Ofra, an authorized settlement, was established in 1975. “Why can we build there, and not here?” they asked. As the years drag on with no solution to the conflict, it is a question members of the Netanyahu government, like many of their predecessors, have struggled to answer.
None of these outcomes mention Gaza. The blockaded enclave, home to 1.8 million Palestinians (the West Bank is home to 2.7 million), is a problem that no one really wants to solve. The United Nations has warned that the strip will be uninhabitable by 2020. Its economy is shattered with nearly half of the population unemployed and 70 percent reliant on foreign aid. Fuel shortages are common; electricity is available for only a few hours each day. The aquifer that supplies Gazans with most of their water will soon be too salty to drink. But Israel has no long-term plan for helping Gaza. Nor does Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the territory.
In theory, the withdrawal from Gaza was meant to signal Israel’s commitment to the two-state solution. But in practice, the pullout—which was not coordinated with the Palestinians—has only made a deal more remote. The blockade has failed at its main goal, toppling Hamas, but Israel and Egypt refuse to lift it; and Hamas cares more about preserving its grip on power than the welfare of the population. And so a two-state solution comes to look like three states.
The other possibilities are flawed as well. A single state requires trust, something that is in short supply. The Oslo process, the separation barrier, the Gaza blockade—all of this has created a situation in which Israelis and Palestinians do not interact with each other. Annexation and the status quo, on the other hand, both leave millions of Palestinians without fundamental rights.
But these futures appear more realistic than the aging two-state paradigm. The Oslo Accords, signed 24 years ago, were meant to be a five-year interim measure. And yet when Isaac Herzog, the putative head of the peace camp, talks about negotiations with the Palestinians, he envisions a process that needs at least another five years.
Many people are simply giving up. The Israeli right talks of annexation; younger Palestinians talk of abandoning their struggle for statehood, and reframing it as a civil rights struggle. Trump’s breezy dismissal of the two-state paradigm, hasty as it seemed, may have been better aligned with the public mood than John Kerry’s meticulous speech.
SAN DIEGO—Around lunchtime two days before Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration last month, some 200 business and civic leaders from San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, gathered here in a hotel ballroom downtown for an event hosted by the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. As the assembled professionals, decked out in business-casual attire and speaking a smattering of Spanish and English, munched on cold—not to say rubbery—chicken and green salad and sipped iced tea, the event’s keynote speaker, a UCLA economist named Lee Ohanian, delivered a pessimistic message about the man who was on everybody’s mind.
Trump’s plan to tax imports from Mexico would amount to “shooting [us] in the foot,” Ohanian declared, “with many, many unintended consequences.” Given the aging of the baby boomers and declining U.S. birth rates, Trump’s possible plan to reduce immigration levels would make it “extremely difficult” to achieve increased productivity or GDP growth, he warned. But Ohanian wound up his speech on a positive note: Trump seems like a “person who tends to change his mind,” he said. The crowd laughed nervously.
For the people who do business in Tijuana and San Diego, talk of barriers—whether it’s tariffs or even “big beautiful walls”— is anathema. They know that the health of their “mega region,” as San Diego’s Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer calls it, depends on enhancing the economic integration of the two cities that collectively boast a population of 5 million. (Roughly half live on each side.) One of the most dramatic examples of their commitment to that entwined economy is a bridge that literally crosses above the border fence. In late 2015, a terminal connecting San Diego to the Tijuana airport opened. Funded privately by American and Mexican investors, the Cross Border Xpress has created the world’s first truly binational airport. Each day, thousands of passengers from San Diego now walk easily across the border directly into the Tijuana airport. Conversely, people landing in Tijuana now walk into San Diego after their flights. The project is a striking physical manifestation of the increasing interconnectedness of the two cities.
It wasn’t always this way; in fact, as recently as 20 years ago, San Diego, a Southern California city long dominated by a major presence of the U.S. Navy, felt more of a gravitational pull from the north than the south. “San Diego was [still] deciding what it wanted to be. We looked north and decided that we did not want to be Los Angeles, or worse a pretty suburb of Los Angeles,” recalls James Clark, the executive director of the Smart Border Coalition, a civic group that advocates for improved border crossings. San Diego looked south and discovered its sister city, Tijuana, had become a manufacturing powerhouse. “Tijuanese were spending money in our stores, restaurants, museums and theaters. We had families that lived on both sides of the border, went to school on both sides of the border, attended church on both sides and were truly bicultural, bilingual and binational.”
Signs of integration abound. You can hear it in the impeccable Mexican-Spanish pronunciation that even many Anglo San Diegans possess; the city to their south is named “Tee-hwana,” not “Tee-a-wanna,” they remind visitors. You can see it in many of the city’s neighborhoods, where Spanish signage is everywhere. And most of all, you can see it at the border crossing in the southern San Diego neighborhood of San Ysidro, the world’s busiest land border. It’s a sprawling, hectic scene, as thousands line up on foot and in cars to make what for many is a daily crossing from Mexico to the United States and vice versa.
Today, the mayor of San Diego says, the relationship between Tijuana and his city is “incredibly strong.” The numbers tell the story. According to a 2014 study from the University of California, San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, the region has a gross annual product of more than $220 billion. Some 70,000 commercial and vehicular northbound crossings are made each day. (Tens of thousands of those are commuters—some of them American citizens—who live in Tijuana and work in San Diego.) The area has become “the largest region for medical device manufacturing” in the world, says Faulconer, who explains that because of increasingly complex binational supply chains, “sometimes [one product] will cross the border two to three times.” UCLA’s Ohanian pegs the figure far higher: In some cases, he suggests, a product can cross the U.S.-Mexico border an astonishing 14 times before it goes to market. One study suggests that the average good exported from Mexico to the U.S. contains 40-percent American-made components. In the San Diego-Tijuana region, Solar Turbines, Kyocera International and Taylor Guitars are just a few of the companies that have facilities on both sides of the border.
To help bolster this burgeoning cross-border relationship, the region has undertaken some unusual binational infrastructure initiatives in recent years—and not just at the Tijuana airport. Most important, construction is now underway on a new land border crossing to the east of the extant traffic-clogged gateways; one designed and partially funded with local money from San Diego County’s regional governments, and which will be paid off through tolls. The new border crossing should be open before the decade is out, and—backers say—the benefits to the regional economy will total in the billions. Regardless of who is sitting in the Oval Office, San Diego and Tijuana are betting that “big league” binational infrastructure investments will pay off.
Flying into San Diego is an undeniably thrilling experience. The busiest single-runway airport in the country, still known to many by its original name, Lindbergh Field dates to 1923. It’s hemmed in by a bay, steep hills and the skyscrapers of downtown. (That the airport was named for a notorious anti-Semite is actually among the least of its problems.) Already operating at near capacity, handling some 20 million passengers a year, the airport simply cannot expand—the topography won’t allow it. Noise restrictions, meanwhile, limit the hours at which planes can take off and land. Lindbergh’s short runway also limits the size of planes it can accommodate, and therefore the length of its routes. And to top it off, pilots say the obstacles around it make the airport one of the most challenging in the country to land at.
Local businesses and residents have complained for years that they’re being hemmed in by Lindbergh’s limitations. Many with international destinations have long been forced to travel up to Los Angeles International to catch flights—an often congested journey of 125 miles.
Starting back in the 1960s, San Diegans began thinking about replacing Lindbergh. But it wasn’t until around 1990 that local leaders began seriously casting about for solutions. Initially, they looked south. That year, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), a regional transportation planning board made up of 18 cities and the San Diego County government, proposed building a binational airport that San Diego and Tijuana would share.
It was an intriguing idea: It just so happens that Tijuana’s airport sits on the northern Mexico border, directly across from a fairly undeveloped and largely flat section of eastern San Diego called Otay Mesa. (Otay Mesa also already has its own small airport used for private planes called Brown Field.) The idea was that the Tijuana airport would expand north, into San Diego. A 1990 booklet promoting the idea called for “separate terminals and customs [on either side of the border]” along with “shared runways, taxiway and control tower.” Mexican authorities shot down the idea, however.
A year later, a Republican San Diego city councilman named Ron Roberts—perhaps not coincidentally, an architect by trade—made a similar proposal, one he dubbed “Twin Ports.” As the Los Angeles Times reported, “Roberts' proposal calls for a 12,000-foot runway and terminals to be built on the U.S. side of the border, adjacent to Tijuana's international airport ... The twin airports would operate separate arrival and departure terminals, customs checkpoints, immigration, agriculture and other inspection facilities. The only permanent physical feature crossing the border would be a taxiway linking the two parallel runways.” Similar proposals were debated in the ensuing years.
Ultimately, the binational issues involved made building a dual runway San Diego-Tijuana airport all but impossible. The legal issues involved in aviation are complicated enough domestically, but having to deal with two countries’ aviation laws and regulations in a single airport proved too high a barrier—particularly in the wake of 9/11. Then, in 2006, another possible solution to Lindbergh Field’s woes was scuttled when a referendum, promoted by SANDAG, which would have relocated the San Diego airport to nearby Miramar Marine Corps Air Station went down in a heavy defeat. (That proposal was doomed as soon as the Marines came out against it—you don’t mess with the military in San Diego.)
What to do?
Around the same time, a new idea began being seriously discussed by Mexican and American authorities and business leaders. Rather than build a runway on the northern side of the border, what if San Diego simply constructed a new terminal, which would provide access to the Tijuana side of the border? That would provide all of the benefits of a binational airport, but without the headaches of runways and taxiways crossing international borders. And better yet—what if the project could be completed using private funds? That made the idea particularly appealing in a traditionally tightwad, conservative area like San Diego.
Investors on the American and Mexican sides of the border were interested. A group of them (including the Chicago-based magnate Sam Zell, who drove the Tribune newspaper chain into bankruptcy) formed a new company, Otay-Tijuana Ventures, LLC, and acquired the land on the north side of the border for about $30 million.
While the project was privately funded, the city government took the lead on promoting the new solution and getting the necessary approvals. San Diego “advocated strongly in Washington, D.C. and Mexico City for the project,” says Jen Lebron, press secretary and director of digital strategy for the city of San Diego. That paid off in 2010 when the U.S. State Department greenlighted it. The city government also offered what was crucial for getting the project off the ground: permitting. In 2012, it officially granted land-use permits and building permits for the facility. In 2014, construction commenced.
In December 2015, the Cross Border Xpress (CBX), a 65,000-square-foot facility opened to its first passengers. It’s about 20 miles south of Lindbergh Field and downtown San Diego. A grand opening ceremony, featuring appearances by the mayors of San Diego and Tijuana, was held in April. Total costs were $120 million. (Alas, even the private sector can suffer from cost overruns—initially, costs were pegged at about $80 million.)
The handsome facility, designed by the late Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, evokes openness: Taking advantage of the San Diego-Tijuana climate, it even has an outdoor garden featuring desert plants. It’s built to serve a capacity of 2.5 million passengers a year; the Tijuana airport handled roughly 6.3 million flyers in 2016, meaning that CBX could end up serving about a third of the passengers who use the airport. The pièce de resistance of the facility is the purple 390-foot bridge that crosses the national border—indeed, it passes right above the black border fence. It’s the world’s only truly binational airport with commercial service—two Swiss airports are accessible from France, but their facilities sit wholly within Switzerland.
The elegant simplicity of the idea is apparent when one visits. The firm that built the CBX explains it this way: “Passengers departing from the U.S. park on CBX property, enter the building, check in, walk over the border using the new bridge, and literally descend into [Tijuana airport] to reach their flights. Returning passengers land at [Tijuana], take the bridge across the border, enter the U.S. through the new [U.S. Customs and Border Patrol] facility, and emerge from the CBX to take their preferred form of transportation.” Passengers pay a fee—usually around $16—to use the facility. (That’s how the private investors make their money.) And one has to possess a valid boarding pass to use it.
Elizabeth Brown, the chief commercial officer at CBX, joined the project in the summer of 2015, just a few months before its opening. She’s essentially in charge of the terminal now. A Canadian citizen, Brown’s previous assignment had been eight years at the Montego Bay, Jamaica, airport. (Brown, a cheerful presence, is a good sport: When I tell her my luggage had been pilfered at Montego Bay few years back, she chuckles apologetically.)
Brown says that after a little more than a year, CBX has been a wild success. In fact, the only real snag so far has been a result of that success: There isn’t enough parking. Today, about 5,000 people use the CBX daily, with roughly equal traffic heading north and south. On January 2, CBX had a record 10,000 passengers pass through the facility. Tijuana airport, for its part, has room to grow. Unlike Lindbergh, it operates 24 hours a day, and airlines are reportedly considering adding additional service.
Given that no public transit yet extends to the terminal—hey, this is Southern California—the lack of parking is a real problem. The facility has already expanded its parking capacity once, because the city of San Diego government, ever supportive, allowed a temporary parking permit. More expansion is in the pipeline: The city of San Diego has also provided permitting for a new parking garage and hotel abutting the facility.
Brown says that, at least in part, the CBX is catering to demand that already existed. “Forty-five percent of people going to Mexico from Southern California use the Tijuana airport,” she reports. “That’s more than [Los Angeles International] and [Lindbergh Field] combined. In the past, they’d just drive across the border.” That might have worked going south, but for return trips, it was a potential nightmare. Given the San Ysidro border crossing’s notorious congestion, simply crossing into San Diego after a flight could add hours to the journey. Locals used to complain that crossing into San Diego often took longer than the actual flight into Tijuana.
Today, when using the CBX, that border crossing is just about seamless. In fact, I enjoyed a demonstration of this. When I arrived at the terminal to meet Brown, she was about to land on a flight into Tijuana from Mexico City. She sent a text message when she arrived at baggage claim; less than 20 minutes later, Brown emerged onto the San Diego side, having already picked up her bag and cleared customs. (“I swear we didn’t plan this!” one of her colleagues said.)
There’s no evidence that Lindbergh Field, which maintained a studied neutrality about the CBX, has been hurt by the advent of the bridge. After all, the number of passengers arriving and departing out of San Diego continues to slowly rise. Again, a significant portion of people who use CBX would simply have driven over to Tijuana in the past. And indeed, as Universiy of California, San Diego economics professor Richard Carson, an expert on airports, points out, “large metropolitan areas are typically best served by multiple airports.” There’s little overlap, moreover, between the destinations; Tijuana serves more than two dozen Mexican destinations, for example, while San Diego’s airport has flights to only two. Tijuana also boasts a direct flight to Shanghai; San Diego has no routes to China. Brown also notes that some people fly into Tijuana, use the CBX, and then hop on a shuttle bus to make the trip up to San Diego’s airport for their onward journey. That trip would have been essentially undoable when one had to rely on the arduous and unpredictable San Ysidro crossing from Tijuana into San Diego.
The economist Carson, who back in 2006 argued loudly that the Miramar airfield proposal was unnecessary, is bullish on the CBX, which he says “works smoothly,” noting how it’s opened up destinations in Mexico that were once accessible only by driving up to Los Angeles, then flying out of LAX. Ron Roberts, the former city councilman who more than a quarter century ago proposed the “Twin Ports” solution, is also a fan. He’s used the facility as a passenger and says the CBX is “working super.”
Carson points to other knock-on benefits for the region, including increased tourism in San Diego from residents of Mexico and other Latin American countries, who now find it “considerably easier” to get there.
The key, says Brown, is that flights from other Mexican cities into Tijuana are domestic flights—they tend to be much cheaper than international routes from Mexico that terminate in cities like San Diego or Los Angeles. (By some estimates, flights out of Tijuana tend to be about a third cheaper than those out of San Diego.) The CBX therefore makes places like Orange County’s Disneyland a lot more accessible—and affordable—for price-sensitive Mexican travelers.
Traffic jams, to be sure, are a fact of life in Southern California. But the mass congestion at San Diego’s border crossings has long been a serious hindrance for a region that relies on easy and predictable international crossings of goods and people.
It was back in 2006, Denise Ducheny recalls, when SANDAG released its landmark Border Wait Times Study. Ducheny, now a senior policy adviser at UC San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, was then a Democratic state senator representing a district of San Diego. The results of SANDAG’s study were sobering: Wait times at the border—at Otay Mesa, which is equipped to handle trucks, and San Ysidro, which isn’t—were costing the regional economy a cool $7.2 billion a year, and more than 60,000 jobs.
Ducheny knew something had to be done—that the region needed faster, easier, more efficient crossings. But at the same time, she was well aware that was easier said than done. The federal government, traditionally in charge of international border crossings, would never spend enough to drastically improve the situation, she recalls thinking—and this was even before the 2009 recession that hammered tax receipts and the federal government’s balance sheet. And though the feds did eventually appropriate $741 million to expand the crossing at San Ysidro, it was clear to Ducheny and others that a more drastic solution was necessary. In other words, San Diego-Tijuana needed a new border crossing, one that could handle both commercial and personal traffic. The new crossing would go in to the east of the two existing ports of entry, at a site dubbed Otay Mesa East.
The problem, as always, was money. But there was a possible solution: tolls.
Ducheny was initially resistant to the idea. “I had always hated the notion of paying to cross the border,” she says. It’s a California thing: “We’re used to freeways being freeways.”
Eventually, however, realizing that tolling was the best option, Ducheny came around. In 2008, she sponsored legislation in the California State Senate that granted SANDAG the authority to issue construction bonds, build a new road to the border and seek private funds for a public-private partnership. The bill passed easily.
The access road to the crossing will be tolled; that’s how the bonds will be repaid. Otay Mesa East will be the first paid crossing between California and Mexico. (Some of the Texas-Mexico crossings levy tolls.)
The project is locally driven—that’s key. “We’re actually planning [the crossing] as a whole system,” says Ducheny, including the access roads, the facility itself and even the new facilities on the Mexican side. Pointing to the extant Otay Mesa crossing, she says that the local emphasis will pay dividends in a way that federally led projects haven’t. Otay Mesa, which was driven by the feds, is a first-class facility, but it was “built in the middle of nowhere, with no connecting roads.” Otay Mesa East will be much better planned, she says.
The project has also provided an opportunity for enhanced cross-border cooperation. Given that Mexico also has to build new roads to the crossing on the southern side, the idea is that the toll revenues on the American side will be shared with the Mexicans. And because the toll is technically only for the access roads, not the crossing itself, the feds don’t need to get involved. “If we pull this off, this is a new model,” Ducheny says.
Already, more than half of the tolled access road on the San Diego side has been built. The project’s backers hope the crossing will be operational before the decade is out. They’re just awaiting final approval from the Mexican and U.S. governments for the planned facility at the border itself.
Ron Roberts—the former city councilman who long ago proposed building Twin Ports—is now the chair of SANDAG. He says that, if all goes according to plan, “crossing at Otay Mesa East will take one-tenth of the time that it does at San Ysidro.” In order to make sure the new crossing doesn’t simply become another traffic-clogged San Ysidro or Otay Mesa, the cost of the tolls will rise and fall based on demand. The variable tolling scheme “will keep traffic reasonable,” Roberts insists. A SANDAG study estimates that median toll rates will be $2.35 for private cars and $15.45 for commercial vehicles. The Smart Border Coalition is also pushing to make it easier for Customs and Border Patrol to hire and train agents; the group argues that the current standards lead to understaffed facilities, which only compound the volume-related delays.
If the traffic reduction plan works, it will be a boon to the region: “Imagine if a truck can make three round trips a day instead of two,” Ducheny says, “that’s a huge productivity increase.”
Like Orange County directly to its north, San Diego has traditionally been friendlier to the Republican Party than many other parts of coastal California. Pete Wilson, who went on to a fiercely conservative governorship of California, was mayor here. The GOP’s relative strength in San Diego continues to this day, with current mayor Kevin Faulconer just about the only prominent elected Republican left in the state. (For this reason, it’s widely expected that he’ll run for governor in 2018.)
But a funny thing happened in 2016: Donald Trump got slaughtered in San Diego County, losing 56 to 31 percent. Compare that with 2012, when Mitt Romney managed to secure 46.4 percent to Obama’s 51.5 percent.
Trump’s perceived hostility to Mexico was a big reason why. It wasn’t his call for a wall along the border that turned people off—indeed, San Diegans have no problem with the border fence that separates them from Tijuana and recognize the need for border security. Rather, it was Trump’s call for a tax on imports from Mexico and his general perceived disdain for the country to the south that alarmed people.
Already, Trump’s presidency is affecting the area in unpredictable ways. Las Americas Premium Outlets is a major outlet mall in San Ysidro, just a little way from the border crossing. So close to Mexico is the outdoor mall that its back parking lot abuts the border fence. While the real estate company that owns Las Americas wouldn’t disclose sales figures, a spokesman acknowledged that “a great many” of its shoppers are from Mexico.
Yet on a recent weekday the mall was seemingly deserted. The fall of the Mexican peso—a direct result of Trump’s election, economists agree—has sharply curtailed Mexican shopping in San Diego, says James Clark of the Smart Border Coalition. This was illustrated to even greater affect on Sunday, February 5, when Mexican shoppers organized a spontaneous, social media-fueled boycott of American stores. On that day, San Ysidro merchants reported their sales figures were 50 to 80 percent off from a typical Sunday. Border crossings into San Ysidro were reported to take only 20 minutes; they’d take up to three hours on a normal weekend.
Local leaders hope they might be able to educate the new president. Mayor Faulconer—who, despite his partisan affiliation, pointedly declined to endorse Trump in the general election—suggests that the Trump presidency is an “opportunity” because the San Diego-Tijuana relationship is a “good story to tell.” At the Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Jerry Sanders, the current Chamber president and himself a former Republican mayor of San Diego, said, while addressing the binational business community, “it’s so important that we continue working together, with a strong unified voice, to reach those outside of this room and beyond our region.” Everybody knew to whom he was referring.
And in the meantime, other projects are charging full speed ahead. Early last year, American authorities began inspecting trucks on the Mexican side of the border at Otay Mesa. The goal of this unprecedented project is to avoid double inspections—and to expedite the process of getting goods into the U.S.
Also, renovation is underway on a 100-year-old rail line linking San Diego with Tijuana and neighboring Tecate (a city some 30 miles east) then recrossing the border, connecting with the Union Pacific line. Jorge Izquierdo, a spokesman for BC Rail in Tijuana, is sanguine. He figures that even with a border tax, the price will just be passed on to consumers, so goods will continue to flow. And Ducheny makes an interesting point as well: Washington’s souring relations with Mexico City have actually strengthened California-Mexico ties. “The Cali-Mex relationship is now stronger than ever,” she says, “especially as the U.S.-Mexico relationship weakens.”
Ultimately, no matter what happens in Washington—or in Mexico City, for that matter, where an anti-American leftist is tipped to be elected president in 2018—San Diego has no choice but to work with Tijuana.
“We breathe the same air, we use the same watershed,” points out Mayor Faulconer. In many ways, he says, “the story of San Diego is the story of its relationship to Mexico.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes on Friday sent a letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation asking it to investigate the leaks of classified information that have produced a series of damaging media reports on President Donald Trump’s administration, according to three sources familiar with the letter.
Nunes has suggested in recent days that the leaks came from career government intelligence employees who are either loyal to former President Barack Obama or opposed to Trump. And Nunes’ letter gives Trump a key Capitol Hill bulkhead in his war on leaks.
According to the sources familiar with Nunes’ letter, it asks FBI Director James Comey to investigate and report back to the intelligence committee on the circumstances behind the leaking of details from Trump’s phone calls with foreign leaders, as well as from communications between his former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and the Russian Ambassador to the U.S.
Nunes’s letter also asks Comey to look into leaks related to the Central Intelligence Agency’s rejection of an elite-level security clearance for one of Flynn’s closest deputies on the National Security Council, senior director for Africa Robin Townley.
It’s unclear if Nunes’s letter asks the FBI to investigate other leaks as well, and the California congressman’s office did not comment. Neither did Townley, the FBI or the CIA.
But someone who has discussed the matter with Nunes says the congressman, who served on Trump’s transition team, “believes that Trump is being targeted by the intelligence community. It’s an abuse of authority.”
Nunes in a Wednesday interview on Fox News called the leaks “totally unacceptable.” And, he added, “I think most of this is probably from people who were in the old administration, but there still could be some people that have burrowed in and are providing classified information to the media.”
Trump also has talked to the Justice Department about an investigation into the leaks, tweeting on Thursday morning that “leaking, and even illegal classified leaking, has been a big problem in Washington for years.” Picking up the theme during a rambling press conference later that day, Trump blamed the intelligence community for leaking damaging information about his administration.
The leaks have taken a toll on Trump’s administration. In early February, it was reported that Trump had abruptly ended a phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull after a heated exchange over an Obama-era agreement to accept 1,250 refugees from an Australian detention center.
That same day, the leaked transcript of Trump’s phone call with Mexican President Enrique Nieto revealed Trump had complained about Mexico’s “handling” of “tough hombres.”
Then earlier this week, Flynn was forced to resign after the Washington Post, citing nine top current and former officials at multiple agencies, reported that Flynn — despite his assertions to the contrary — had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia during December communications with the country’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak.
And the CIA’s rejection of Townley’s request for a so-called “Sensitive Compartmented Information” clearance, which was first reported by POLITICO, forced Townley, a former Marine intelligence officer who had long maintained a top secret-level security clearance, off the NSC.
The move, which came despite pleas from top Trump White House officials to clear Townley, was seen by some Trump loyalists as a shot across the bow of the new president’s administration by the intelligence community. It’s unclear why Townley’s clearance was rejected.
But Flynn and his allies believed the move was motivated by Townley’s skepticism for the intelligence community’s techniques — sentiments shared by Flynn and by Trump.
During his campaign and transition period, Trump repeatedly lashed out at the intelligence community, arguing that its investigation into Russia’s alleged digital meddling during election — which concluded the Kremlin was trying to help Trump win — was a “political witch hunt.”
That tense relationship has spilled over into Trump’s first month in office. Earlier this week, Trump likened the intelligence community to Russia as he has blamed it for doling out the information that felled Flynn.
But with Nunes’ request for an FBI probe into the leaks, the president is gaining Capitol Hill allies in his push to root out the source of the disclosures.
Earlier this week, House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz asked the Justice Department to launch its own examination of the leaks regarding Flynn. “We have serious concerns about the potential inadequate protection of classified information here," Chaffetz wrote in a letter to the agency’s inspector general.
The Senate left town Friday with Trump’s administration barely staffed, Republicans’ legislative agenda stuck in neutral and Democrats using parliamentary tactics to make senators and staffers’ life a blur of partisan fights and all-night debates. The House left Thursday in barely better shape.
On Capitol Hill, it’s been a less than stellar start for Trump’s vows to shake up Washington.
“Slower than we want, certainly. We’d like to get these [nominees] behind us and get on to policy,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). But, he admitted, when it comes to Republicans’ top priorities — Obamacare repeal and tax reform — “Nothing’s ready to bring to the floor.”
In the Senate, Democrats have stymied Trump’s Cabinet to a degree that has no historical precedent, eating away at precious floor time and delaying the GOP’s agenda until the spring. The House doesn’t have the arduous task of confirming hundreds of Trump’s nominees, but Republican infighting over health care and taxes has raised serious doubts about whether a bill signing on either issue will ever be in the offing.
The bruising Cabinet conflict is boiling over in both parties after a bitter seven weeks in session. Democrats held the Senate in session overnight three times in the past two weeks, dragging out debates on nomination battles even they knew they could not win.
A bloc of junior Republican senators privately pushed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to retaliate by keeping the chamber in for an eighth consecutive week to steamroll recalcitrant Democrats, according to senators and aides.
In the end, the request was deemed impractical by GOP leaders, with a bipartisan group of senators headed abroad and a building complex filled with exhausted lawmakers and aides. Votes on Cabinet nominees next week could have failed due to attendance problems among Republicans, who enjoy a slim 52-48 advantage over Democrats.
But the frustration among Republicans is real.
“Personally, I’d like to turn the Senate on and leave it open, 24-7, until we get this done. Seriously. And there are several of us pushing for that,” Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said. “It’s unfortunate we’ve got a recess week. Several of us would love to stay here and get this done. You had a weekend a couple of weekends ago that we wanted to stay here.”
A spokeswoman for freshman Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) confirmed that he “fully supports working late nights and weekends to move the Republican agenda as fast as possible.” At least a half-dozen senators were pushing the effort, though several asked not to be named to avoid provoking a fight with Senate leaders.
Republicans — including Trump — are furious that Democrats have strung out debate on a series of Trump’s nominees for as long as they can, occasionally letting through less controversial figures like Small Business Administration chief Linda McMahon or Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. The effect has been that Trump’s agencies have been rudderless for weeks — and that the Senate floor has been tied in knots.
“It’s pretty hard to get anything done if you’re spending all your time trying to get your Cabinet approved,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the longest-serving Republican senator.
Republicans will return to a continued slog on nominees on Feb. 27, pressing to confirm Wilbur Ross to the Commerce Department, Ryan Zinke to the Interior Department, Ben Carson to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Rick Perry to the Energy Department — a roster that could take nearly 100 additional hours of debate to finish.
But there are literally hundreds more nominees that must be confirmed to staff Trump’s administration: Agriculture Department nominee Sonny Perdue, undersecretaries, ambassadors and members of organizations like the National Labor Relations Board. If Democrats keep stringing this out, it could become impossible to both pass a legislative agenda and confirm everyone that Trump needs to run his administration.
And Democrats are not ruling out further delays for many of Trump’s lower-level nominees. As Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) put it: “There are no exceptions for advise and consent.”
“Our hope is that the deputy and assistant secretaries who do a lot of the work aren’t as radical and as unqualified as these. So we want to make it clear: If they are, then this is going to keep going,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “If you keep putting up people as unqualified as Betsy DeVos or as conflicted as Scott Pruitt, there’s going to be a lot of long days and nights.”
He noted with some satisfaction that at this point in 2009, President Barack Obama had most of his Cabinet installed and had already signed into law the $787 billion economic stimulus bill. By contrast, Trump has signed two resolutions rolling back regulations, a government accountability bill and a waiver allowing confirmation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Democrats say delaying the GOP’s legislative agenda even as Trump grows more unpopular is a side effect of their floor tactics, not the motivating force behind them. But Republicans are already growing worried that they will be forced to pass another continuing resolution to keep the government funded in late April rather than attempt an omnibus or individual appropriations bills as one of the consequences of Democrats’ floor strategy.
“Lack of accomplishment, if that’s the goal of Democrats, then they’re accomplishing that,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.).
Of course, it’s Republicans, not Democrats, who are struggling mightily to devise a plan to repeal and replace the health care law they’ve targeted for years. The GOP is also sharply divided over rewriting the tax code, with Speaker Paul Ryan facing blowback from members in his own party about a plan to change the way imports and exports are taxed.
There have been some bright spots for Republicans: Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is proceeding apace and may be confirmed in early April. And the GOP is rolling back Obama-era regulations as fast as it can through a procedure that precludes the filibuster. That is tiding over even some of the most combative senators — for now.
“Repealing three regulations that will hopefully save tens of thousands of American jobs, I think that’s a big deal,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). But, he added: “There’s going to be a lot unhappiness from a lot of people if we don’t have an [Obamacare] repeal vote in a month or two months.”
Senators investigating President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia held a closed-door meeting on Friday with FBI Director James Comey amid an uproar on Capitol Hill over alleged contacts between Trump aides and Moscow.
Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said as he left the meeting he was confident the intelligence panel would have access to the documents it needs to carry out its investigation of the issue.
“We have put in a process to make sure that we are going to get access to the information we need,” the Virginia senator said. “I have a high level of confidence that we'll get what we need.”
Warner and others members of the Intelligence Committee declined to comment specifically on what was discussed in the meeting with Comey.
But Warner said he continued to support the Intelligence Committee’s investigation, led by Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C), into Russia’s meddling in November’s presidential election — a probe that’s expected to delve into contacts between Russian officials and the Trump team, possibly including former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Warner’s remarks come as other Democrats who are not on the intelligence panel are privately voicing concern the secretive, Republican-led committee could end up burying the investigation, according to sources familiar with the matter. Many Democrats and a few Republicans have called for a broader, select committee to handle the investigation.
“What we are trying to do, and I give Richard a lot of credit, is to not have this default to a partisan food fight that doesn't serve the public interest,” Warner said. “We both understand how serious this is.”
Russia’s election meddling, Warner added, was “an assault on our basic democratic process.”
The meeting with Comey was the Intelligence Committee’s second meeting of the day. The panel met earlier on Friday behind closed doors to discuss the status of its Russia probe.
"We're just discussing how we're going to organize the investigation," Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said as he entered the earlier meeting.
Attendees at both meetings included senior Republicans John Cornyn of Texas and Roy Blunt of Missouri, both members of the intelligence panel, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), an ex-officio panel member.
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.
1. Wilbur Ross, nominee for secretary of Commerce
The 79-year-old billionaire investor, if approved by the Senate, will be “chief architect” of the president’s trade policy, with influence expected to eclipse that of the US Trade Representative. He told the Senate Commerce Committee in January that he’s “not anti-trade,” but said the U.S. would take a much tougher approach with countries that don’t play by the rules. He also told the committee that renegotiating NAFTA is job one, and that he wants to help develop a new "model" for U.S. trade agreements.
Ross’s views on trade are extensively documented in a paper he published last September with economist Peter Navarro that blamed slow American growth on China’s entry into the WTO, as well as on poorly negotiated and under-enforced trade deals. When it comes to tariffs, it said they’ll “be used not as an end game but rather as a negotiating tool to encourage our trading partners to cease cheating"—but left open the possibility of “defensive tariffs to level the playing field.”
Ross knows Trump from a 1990 deal in which he represented the bondholders of Trump’s failing flagship casino, negotiating a deal that allowed Trump to keep control and stay out of bankruptcy. His more recent business deals have made him a controversial figure in the muscular industries that Trump promises to revive: He’s bought troubled companies in sectors like steel and coal, merged them, shed debts and pensions, and sold them for a profit. The deals have burnished Ross’s image among industry and labor heads as a Rust Belt hero working to save declining businesses, but also led to charges of being a “vulture investor” who strips assets and dumps pension obligations onto the government. He knows firsthand the benefit of government trade intervention: His companies benefitted handsomely from the steep tariffs George W. Bush imposed on foreign steel in 2002. Read more about Ross here, his views on the issues here and his Senate confirmation hearing here.
2. Peter Navarro, director of the National Trade Council
The Trump administration is launching a new National Trade Council, realigning the traditional trade and manufacturing functions of the National Security Council and National Economic Council, explicitly to boost domestic manufacturing and defense jobs. The NTC, like the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, will answer directly to the White House—setting up another competing power center to the USTR in trade negotiations.
The president couldn’t have picked someone with much tougher views on China than Navarro. The 67-year-old economics and public professor at University of California-Irvine, who helped craft Trump’s trade policies during the campaign, is the author of several books on the subject and created a documentary called "DEATH BY CHINA: How America lost its manufacturing base." (Though not widely screened, the film evidently caught the attention of Trump, who praised it as "right on.")
Navarro, who holds a Ph.D. In economics from Harvard University, said he supports Trump's pledge to slap a 45 percent tariff on goods imported from China, telling the Los Angeles Times in August that such a move wouldn’t cause a trade war but would get China to stop its "massive cheating." He co-authored September’s white paper with Wilbur Ross, in which the two backed the president-elect’s pledge to label China a currency manipulator and said that most of the trade deals America has entered into “must be renegotiated.” The paper also promised Trump would reduce the U.S. trade deficit by boosting exports, reducing “cheap imports” from countries like China and Mexico and promoting “Made in America” policies. Read more about Navarro here.
3. Robert Lighthizer, nominee for U.S. trade representative
A veteran trade attorney who shares the president’s defensive view of trade, Lighthizer served as deputy USTR under former President Ronald Reagan. He’s aligned with Trump on a number of issues, including on his stance that the United States needs to take a tougher approach on trade in general and toward China in particular. As an attorney at the Skadden law firm, he represented the U.S. Steel Corp. and other domestic giants on a number of cases aimed at keeping foreign steel imports at bay. Given his history, he can be expected to make a push for a major reform of the WTO’s dispute settlement process, or at least carry out such an aggressive litigation strategy that he could shake the group's well-insulated legal system to its core.
He has a reputation as a tough negotiator with an unorthodox style: One longtime trade lawyer told POLITICO that Lighthizer will go into meetings and use “filthy humor and vulgar language to throw people off their stride, which can be side-splittingly funny and very effective.” Perhaps more telling, he has not shied away in the past from using — or threatening to use — the so-called “nuclear option” of trade weapons: Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, which allows the administration to raise tariffs on other countries unilaterally. Lighthizer invoked the authority on behalf of a client in 1993 in order to reach a deal with Japan, according to a Washington Post article from the time. “You win by threatening to use it,” Lighthizer told the newspaper. Read more about Lighthizer here and his views and likely actions at the WTO here.
4. Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee
In the Senate, no one has more power over trade policy — and no one will be more important for Trump to have in his corner — than the seven-term senator from Utah, whose finance committee has wide influence on trade legislation and trade operations of government agencies. Like many Republicans, Hatch finds himself in unfamiliar territory with the new administration: he has positioned himself over the years as one of Congress's strongest free-trade advocates, fighting hard to win support for so-called fast-track legislation to help the Obama administration negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the summer of 2015.
Hatch supported Trump once he became the party’s nominee, but has not hesitated to highlight their disagreements on trade. Commenting during the campaign on Trump’s pledges to scrap free-trade deals and block Chinese goods, Hatch said he understood the “frustration with wanting to hold our trading partners accountable.” "But there are better ways to do that,” he said. In November, after Trump announced his intent to withdraw from TPP on his first day in office, Hatch released a statement promising to pursue a strong trade agenda in other ways, though he did not offer specifics. Asked around the same time about Trump’s plans to renegotiate NAFTA, Hatch replied simply: “If it happens, I’ll be helpful.”
5. Kevin Brady, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee:
Like Hatch, Brady has long championed free trade agreements; he worked closely with the Obama administration to get Congress behind long-stalled trade deals with Panama, Colombia and South Korea in 2011, when he was chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on trade. Now, as chairman of the full committee he’ll have more influence than ever over U.S. trade policy. At the same time, however, the new administration is openly skeptical of many past trade deals that Brady helped both George W. Bush and Obama pass into law.
A fiscally conservative Republican from Texas, Brady is expected to have a moderating influence on Trump as the president takes on NAFTA and China; he’s said he wants to “keep America in those fast-growing world regions fighting to win new customers and sales for our businesses and workers.” While no big trade legislation is expected in 2017, Brady and other House Republicans have proposed a major change to tax law that could have a profound impact on U.S. imports and exports. Brady, whose role as chairman also makes him the top tax writer in the House, is a key backer of House Republicans’ proposal for a so-called “border adjustment” tax, which would impose a 20 percent levy on all imports while allowing exports to be sold tax-free. The controversial plan has some prominent supporters, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, but a growing number of Senate Republicans have expressed concern and the Trump administration appears to be undecided.
Retailers fear the border tax would will lead to a big increase in the price of imported goods, and trade experts say it could be challenged at the WTO. Brady says the committee is taking both of those concerns into consideration, but he has warned that failure to approve the proposal will hinder efforts to cut the corporate tax rate from the current high level of 35 percent to around 15 or 20 percent, leaving American companies at a competitive disadvantage to other suppliers. Under the current plan, the revenue from the border tax would finance a huge portion of the tax overhaul—so if it fails, Republicans would have to come up with a new source of funding.
There’s a WWII-era story that Sam Oh uses to explain the problems with most medical studies. During the war, U.S. military pilots lost control of their planes and crashed at alarming rates, even in training flights. Eventually, engineers discovered why: The cockpits had been designed in 1926 using average pilot height, weight, arm length and seven other measurements. But pilots were never average in all 10 dimensions—and only rarely in more than three. By designing the cockpit for the average pilot, the military had designed it to fit exactly nobody. After the introduction of adjustable foot pedals, flight suits, seats and head rest, the crashes pretty much stopped.
Oh, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, sees in that story a painfully clear analogue to modern medicine. When new drugs are tested, they’re tested on an average population, and physicians are told about an average set of benefits and side effects. The patients who take them, though, won’t be average at all: They’ll be particular individuals. “Diversity is critical to good science,” he says.
The United States is an increasingly diverse country, to the extent that by 2050, whites will fall below 50 percent of the population. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at the patients in the clinical trials that are used to test medicines and new devices. Minorities still make up a disproportionately low percentage of participants in trials for cancer, asthma and other drugs, according to research by Oh and his colleagues.
In medicine, factoring in diversity is more than a matter of political correctness: It can be life or death. The anti-seizure drug carbamazepine causes Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a horrible and sometimes deadly skin reaction, in many people of Asian ancestry. Puerto Rican children often don’t respond well to albuterol, the emergency drug used to improve breathing for people having asthma attacks. Neurological side effects to the anti-HIV drug efavirenz vary based on genetic ancestry. Plavix, a top anti-platelet drug, often can’t be processed by Asians — although it is still on the formulary as the drug of choice in cities like San Francisco, where Asians make up 37 percent of the city’s population. In each of these drugs, racial differences in response were discovered long after they were approved and put on the market. They might have been found earlier if the clinical studies that led to Food and Drug Administration approval had been more racially inclusive.
“You need to have diversity to study as much of the disease spectrum as possible — differences in exposures, in risk, in genetics, in social and cultural differences,” Oh says.
As long ago as 1993, Congress passed a law requiring the National Institutes of Health to include more women and minorities in research studies. But while women are now overrepresented, enrollment of minorities has lagged. A recent NIH report put the total at 28 percent in 2015, but some research indicates the agency’s statistical methods skew the figures higher than they actually are. The underrepresentation will only be exacerbated as America becomes more diverse, unless scientists can overcome the cultural habits that make it hard for them to reach many groups in the country.
NIH says it is getting better at inclusion, and some new research projects have diversity built into the architecture. The National Institutes of Health’s Precision Medicine Initiative, a massive research study to enroll at least 1 million Americans in a database containing DNA, life histories and hundreds of other measures, aims to have 40 percent of the volunteers be people of color, to reflect America’s current makeup — a percentage that will presumably climb as the population shifts in the future.
But they’ll have their work cut out for them. Oh and the leader of his laboratory, pulmonologist Esteban Burchard, who run a two-decade study of genetic and environmental links to asthma among Latino and African-American kids, say their own findings raise questions about whether the NIH has reached the 28 percent of non-white trial participants that the agency claims. While inclusion may be growing, less than 2 percent of the more than 10,000 cancer trials funded by NIH over the past two decades focused on minority groups. Less than 5 percent of NIH-funded respiratory research reported inclusion of significant racial and ethnic minorities, according to Burchard’s findings. “We have been tracking and trying to be inclusive for decades, and we have not moved the needle,” concludes former NIH Deputy Director Kathy Hudson.
Historically, there are a number of reasons representative numbers of minorities don’t appear in research studies. For one, they often simply weren’t asked: Patients of color are less likely to be seen by the high-end academic specialists who are part of research networks. People who are too busy working and too poor to take time off tend not to participate in research; the same is true for people who don’t understand the project or can’t speak English well. People tend to trust researchers more when they come from similar racial or ethnic backgrounds, but blacks and Hispanics represented just 4 percent and 7 percent of doctorate degrees awarded in biomedical sciences in 2013 — and less than 2 percent of NIH-funded research leaders are black.
And African-Americans, especially, may also have avoided research, thanks in large part to a history of mistrust dating to the 1932-1972 Tuskegee study, during which 600 black men initially were studied, including 399 Alabama sharecroppers who were observed, untreated, and who were allowed to slowly die of syphilis. The study was conducted without the benefit of patients' informed consent.
THE EMPHASIS ON diversity reflects an interesting turnabout in America’s attitudes toward medical research. For the first two-thirds of the 20th century, scientists predominantly enrolled prisoners, the mentally ill and racial minorities in medical research. Participation in research was for the poor, while the drugs that came out of it were for the rich. It was only in the 1970s that scientists recognized the need to warn participants of the risks of medical research and condemned the excesses of trials at places like Tuskegee and the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, where institutionalized children with mental disabilities were intentionally infected with hepatitis.
Since 1981, U.S. law has required research studies to be approved by Institutional Review Boards, committees of experts who examine testing protocols to be sure they’re honest and ethical. Among other things, scientists are required to clarify to research subjects that an experiment might provide a worse outcome than normal care. The turnabout in attitudes toward human subject research began less than a decade later, largely as a result of activism by suffering AIDS patients, who wanted the FDA to speed approval of drugs that might save their lives — and raised their hands to be the test subjects themselves. “Patients were saying, ‘Don’t protect us to death, we’re happy to be guinea pigs,’” said medical historian Steven Epstein of Northwestern University.
At the time, a lot of drug research involved white men aged 40 to 60 — people who looked like the researchers who studied them. But AIDS activism also increased among women, who had been left out of major experiments for cardiovascular disease — often because they were based at Veterans Administration hospitals where there were few women, notes Thomas Inui of Indiana University. Soon this awareness spread among minorities as well, he said: “They realized that [anti-hypertensive] beta blockers weren’t as effective at controlling high blood pressure in African Americans.”
Nowadays, well-off, well-educated cancer patients are the ones most likely to seek treatment in clinical trials. Rather than seeing themselves as vulnerable subjects being experimented on, they see clinical research as the place to get the best care and the most promising treatments (although clinical trials are still experiments, and they still usually fail).
So the problem has shifted, from research exploiting the underclass to research over-emphasizing white and upper middle-class America. Fixing that problem is more than a matter of imposing new ethical guidelines: It takes money and effort.
At the NIH, to ensure that its Precision Medicine Initiative hits its goal of 40 percent people of color, the agency is using a range of PR and recruiting tactics. Last year, it renamed the program “All of Us,” a name that sounds more like a comforting community program than a forbidding research enterprise. And for recruiting, the NIH is using a “trusted intermediary” strategy, says Janet Lambert, acting director of engagement for the project. Reaching beyond the major U.S. research centers, NIH is contacting churches, patient groups and advocacy organizations like the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza, and has budgeted $15 million over three years to help these groups enroll their members.
In African-American communities, even people who don’t know the specifics of Tuskegee inherited the mistrust it engendered, says Robert Winn, a leading cancer researcher at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “For me, the very first goal is to engage, be open and honest about their misgivings but explain how we’ve moved on,” says Winn, who has spoken to community leaders at storefronts and churches as a leader of the Precision Medicine Initiative in Illinois. “We can also say that if you aren’t involved in the [research], you aren’t visible. If those groups are invisible — minorities, rural people — they are increasing disparities, because we will have less understanding of these communities.”
More broadly, Burchard and Oh argue that it chiefly comes down to money, and that NIH should provide better incentives for researchers to enroll minorities in studies overall. “NIH funds me,” says Burchard. “I’m hitting them with a stick, but I’d like to have a carrot of budget increases so our studies could use more diverse populations.”
The cost of broadening a study population can be considerable. To produce valid answers about, say, a given drug, scientists need to enroll statistically relevant numbers of subjects, to prove that an effect isn’t there just by chance. Enrollment costs vary, but a 2015 PhRMA study estimates the drug industry spends $42,000 per patient in Phase III trials — the studies used to determine whether a drug is safe and effective enough to go on the market.
The numbers of patients, and the costs, grow each time researchers search for valid answers about a drug’s effect in a subpopulation — a different race or ethnic group or economic level, or among people who have a secondary illness. While such secondary illnesses — or “comorbidities” — are part of health care in the real world, investigators tend to avoid dealing with them in research trials, to simplify the variables under consideration.
This sometimes impacts minorities in particular. For example, a 2004 trial comparing tamoxifen and raloxifene for breast cancer initially had 12 percent minority enrollment, but only about 6 percent of those included in the final result were minorities. This was because a higher percentage of minority women had comorbidities such as diabetes or hypertension that excluded them from the trial, notes Doris Browne, a medical oncologist and former NIH investigator.
For the All of Us program, the NIH has a decent budget — it’s currently funded through a $200 million fiscal year resolution. Diversity won’t be a luxury as long as Congress continues to approve funds for the program, which would get an additional $300 million under the 2017 continuing resolution. The resolution is up for another vote in March, and its prospects are uncertain. “There is concern about implementation under the current administration,” Burchard says. “But this is a bipartisan issue — whether you supported Trump or Bernie [Sanders], we all develop diseases and would like to find ways around them.”
IN THE QUEST to make research more relevant for more patients, not every scientist and doctor thinks diversity in clinical trials is the most important area to focus on. David S. Jones, a doctor and historian of science at Harvard, argues that racial differences in response to drugs or treatment are relatively uncommon, and rarely clear enough to guide treatment decisions. Not even genetics tests are definitive in most cases, Jones says. While researchers have known for decades that patients with congestive heart failure respond to vastly different dosages of the blood thinner warfarin, for example, genetics testing alone hasn’t provided guidance helpful enough to change clinical practice, which still requires physicians to adjust each patient’s dosage based on how they respond to the drug.
The FDA in 2005 approved a much-ballyhooed heart medication, BiDiL, for African-Americans alone, based on the fact that it worked for black patients in a clinical trial. But while there is some evidence of different heart disease processes in African-American populations, BiDiL has sold poorly, and many critics believe its approval was a political rather than scientific process.
“I just don’t think there are that many significant differences between populations,” says Jones, who points out that there are political risks to such research as well. “You need to balance the marginal utility of finding them against the very real risks of reaffirming that races are so different.” Social concepts of race — which have to do with skin color — have little to do with biological differences, which are highly variable among and between what we think of as “races.” And in any case, the greatest biological differences in the world exist within the populations of Africa.
“If the NIH really wanted to look for genetic differences, they’d want to compare, say, South Africans with Nigerians and Ethiopians,” he said. Genetic differences shouldn’t be ignored, but “fascination with high-tech tools might divert attention from approaches that could be more significant.”
He also points out that other factors — such as lifestyle and family income — may be far more important to a patient’s treatment. “The social scientist in me tells me that one reason the normal dose of albuterol doesn’t work in an African-American kid in the inner city is because his family hasn’t been able to afford the medication consistently,” Jones said. “Physicians would much rather talk about genetic variations than those kinds of social questions.” Noncompliance affects 50 percent of patients and is probably higher among families that lack economic resources, he notes. “A $2 billion moonshot for non-adherence would provide much better return on investment — but no one wants to do it.”
If the Precision Medicine Initiative succeeds, it could answer some of these questions. It is aimed at taking all health factors into account — genes, to be sure, but also environmental elements, and the combination of genes and environment known as epigenetics — the science of how factors outside of DNA, including exposures to toxins or stress hormones or foods — can affect how genes are active in the body. This may help explain why identical twins share many traits, but not all of them, for example.
“What I really like about All of Us, in particular, is the emphasis on different types of diversity,” says Winn. “It’s broad in scope in the best way in terms of getting all classes, races, ethnicity, regions, cultures and all levels of education and technology.”
“You’ll get no argument from me that your ZIP code will determine your outcome more than your genetic code. But your genetic code is not insignificant,” adds Winn. “Let’s stop having the “or” conversation and make it an “and” conversation. Health, he says, is about "access to clean water, less stress AND access to travel, hospitals and the miracles that science has to offer.”
Arthur Allen is eHealth Editor for Politico Pro.
President Donald Trump, living alone inside the White House, often hungers for friendly interaction as he adjusts to the difficult work of governance. At his clubs, he finds what’s missing.
That showed last November at a cocktail and dinner reception celebrating longtime members of his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club. Deep into the process of meeting potential Cabinet nominees, the president-elect invited partygoers to stop by the next day to join the excitement.
“We’re doing a lot of interviews tomorrow — generals, dictators, we have everything,” Trump told the crowd, according to an audiotape of his closed-to-the-press remarks, obtained by POLITICO from a source in the room. “You may wanna come around. It’ll be fun. We’re really working tomorrow. We have meetings every 15, 20 minutes with different people that will form our government."
"We’re going to be interviewing everybody — Treasury, we’re going to be interviewing secretary of state,” he continued. “We have everybody coming in — if you want to come around, it’s going to be unbelievable … so you might want to come along.”
As he prepares to spend the third straight weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, the tape provides a window into how Trump conducts himself away from the prying press and among the loyal faces of his club.
Trump’s comfort level among his members also has raised questions about his discretion. The president last weekend turned the Mar-a-Lago patio into an open-air situation room — discussing the response to a North Korean ballistic missile test while club members snapped pictures that ricocheted around social media and put him in the cross hairs of congressional oversight from Democrats and Republicans concerned about lax security protocols.
While the White House has said that Trump was not discussing classified material in public, the incident received widespread condemnation from national security experts.
But club members dismissed it as just an example of Trump being the man he has always been with them — available.
President George W. Bush had the respite of his Crawford, Texas, ranch to get away from the pressures of the Oval Office, often mountain biking with his more athletic staffers. President Bill Clinton, unlike many of his predecessors, took a liking to the wooded Camp David. President Barack Obama often had his high school friends visit him at the White House to provide some balance to the daily pressures of being the leader of the free world.
For Trump, the “Winter White House” of Mar-a-Lago offers him more than a warm and gilded setting outside of Washington, D.C. — it puts the isolated president back in the mix with his club family, where friends said he feels most like himself.
“So, this is my real group,” Trump said at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, on November 18, according to the audiotape. “These are the people that came here in the beginning, when nobody knew what this monster was gonna turn out to be, right?”
He added: “I see all of you. I recognize, like 100 percent of you, just about.”
Trump had a packed schedule of meetings that weekend less than two weeks after the election. On the Saturday after the cocktail party, Trump met with Mitt Romney, Michelle Rhee, Betsy DeVos, Todd Ricketts, Bob Woodson, Lew Eisenberg and Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong. On Sunday, John Gray, Kris Kobach, Wilbur Ross, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Robert Johnson and David McCormick all schlepped out to Bedminster for meetings.
Trump often appears to want to include his friends in the decision-making process.
Turning to a longtime club member that night, he said: “We were just talking about who we [are] going to pick for the FCC, who [are] we going to pick for this, who we gonna accept — boy, can you give me some recommendations?”
The supportive crowd ate it up as the relaxed Trump, in his element, gave them a close-up view of how he was setting up the government. “You are the special people,” he told the crowd of about 100 members, who mingled around a sushi station served by a waiter wearing a camouflage “Make America Great Again” cap.
Trump is so attached to his club members that he picked David Schutzenhofer, the club manager at Bedminster, to help decorate the White House. “He’s going into the Oval Office, right? And you are going to make it beautiful,” Trump said during the event.
In an interview, Schutzenhofer confirmed he did indeed go on to visit the White House storage facility to help pick out furnishings and artwork that would be part of the Trump decorations. “It was a pretty unique assignment, and I was honored to help,” he said.
White House officials received a copy of the tape from POLITICO on Friday but did not comment. On Saturday morning, after this story posted, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders disputed the story and said it "tries to create a narrative that just isn't true by taking snippets of conversations and events out of context." She also disputed that Trump was inviting club members to join him in meetings. Instead, she said he was "giving a description of what is happening and explaining the nature of the disruptions at the club and reassuring the members."
Trump isn’t totally cut off from his old set of contacts when he is working from the White House. He keeps the same cellphone number he had before the election, but he is more careful now — friends leave messages for him on his cellphone, and their calls are returned from a secure line, two people who speak regularly to Trump said.
But the familiarity of Mar-a-Lago — where Trump has long spent winter weekends — is critical for him, longtime aides said. “I would say it’s keeping him grounded,” said Sam Nunberg, a longtime Trump aide who worked on the campaign. “As a citizen and supporter, I’m very happy to hear he’s going to Mar-a-Lago.”
Newsmax Media CEO Chris Ruddy, who spent time with Trump at Mar-a-Lago last weekend, said it was “a natural element for him. One of the club managers told me he would only be down over the Christmas and Easter holidays. I thought, ‘That’s not going to last long.’ He loves the place so much. He loves the mental break while he mixes with friends.”
At the 20-acre resort, nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and South Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway, Trump lives at the main house and likes to order the Mary MacLeod Trump’s Meat Loaf, named after his mother. His kids, meanwhile, prefer the villas by the ocean.
But the biggest attraction for Trump, according to friends, is the clientele.
“He’s very friendly with members,” said Schutzenhofer, who said shaking hands and hobnobbing has long been “part of his regular routine.”
Tom Bennison, a frequent Trump golf partner from Dallas, said Trump is “most comfortable when he’s at one of his clubs. He’s very proud of the assets he owns, especially these clubs. He’s very relaxed. He goes out of his way to make everybody feel special and to make a lot of people feel much, much bigger than they really are.”
In the audio from the Bedminster soiree, Trump gives a shout-out to a club manager, whom he identifies as “Mickey,” for being “great. He’s central casting.”
The compliments of the guests, however, don’t come for free. Part of the appeal, for Trump, is that they’re all paying him. Last weekend, after delivering a joint statement on North Korea with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump stopped by a wedding at the club.
“They’ve been members of this club for a long time,” Trump said, referring to the bride's family. “They’ve paid me a fortune.” Since his election, Mar-a-Lago has reportedly doubled its initiation fee to $200,000.
And the fact that the club family doesn’t come for free is a running rib. At the party at Bedminster, Trump nudged his new chief of staff, Reince Priebus, to speak to the crowd. “These members are loaded, Reince,” he said. “He will work the room for campaign contributions. Don’t quote me!”
MELBOURNE, Fla. — President Donald Trump's rally here on Saturday featured all the classic signatures of his campaign: boasts about his poll numbers and magazine appearances, grandiose promises of quick action, protesters lining the streets, stinging attacks on the media, false statements and a large, roaring and adoring crowd that loved every minute.
It was a raucous campaign appearance — light on specifics and heavy on braggadocio — just four weeks after he was inaugurated and almost four years before he faces reelection.
Stung by the difficulties of governing, a cascade of negative news coverage and falling poll numbers, the president appeared in a flag-draped airport hangar to show that his supporters still love him and castigate the media for covering his missteps.
He cast the first month of his administration in his terms, praising his pick of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court and the stock market's climb since he took office. He boasted about his conversations with CEOs and ticked off companies that were bringing jobs to the United States — or keeping ones they previously said would move elsewhere.
He told the crowd of his efforts to lower taxes on corporations, reduce environmental regulations and repeal the Affordable Care Act, though usually without concrete details. He talked generally — as he did in the campaign — about his efforts to support police officers, boost the military and fix the country's "inner cities," like Chicago.
On the short plane trip here from his weekend stay at his Mar-a-Lago resort, Trump said the speech would be about unifying the country. It was instead harsh and pitted the crowd, on his side, against a number of supposed foes — judges, unknown gang members and drug cartels allegedly pouring in from other countries, terrorists, Democrats and, most often, reporters.
"We are going to expose them for what they are," Trump said of the news media, which sat in a pen as his supporters heckled. At one moment, the president said the nation’s news media made up sources and stories and that his supporters should live "free" without the media.
He didn't mention his popularity ratings — at about 45 percent, far lower than his predecessors — and his rocky four weeks in office. The president, angry about the barrage of negative coverage, has told allies he wants more news conferences — like a 77-minute one Thursday — and rallies like Saturday's in Florida.
Air Force One rolled up here around a blazing sunset on a balmy afternoon, with thousands standing against barricades and the Lee Greenwood song "Proud to be an American" coming from the speakers.
Trump's supporters say he is happiest amid the glaring lights and the applause, and when he gets to work as his own spokesman. "I've said for two months he needs to be doing more rallies," said Newt Gingrich, a top surrogate. "He will never be the leader of Washington. He is always going to be opposed by Washington. That requires him to go to the country."
The problem, Trump's critics and even some of his supporters say, is he appears far more interested in campaigning than governing. His administration has been rocked by a number of crises and problems, from a federal investigation into his campaign's engagement with Russian officials to the departure of his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, amid controversy.
He has struggled to fill the federal government to carry out his policy goals, with top political positions empty across the bureaucracy as advisers spar over appointments. He often is unable to focus for long periods of time, aides say, and remains deeply interested in cable TV and calling old friends back in New York.
Top lawmakers say Trump’s changing positions and his frequent tweets on issues have caused problems in getting things done, and officials note he has at times seemed slow to grasp crucial parts of the federal government.
He has spent part of his fifth weekend in office trying to replace Flynn. His allies are flying across the globe to calm rattled foreign leaders.
Aboard the short flight from Mar-a-Lago to Melbourne, Trump dismissed criticism that he should be focused more on governing than campaigning. "Making our country great again is a campaign. For me, it’s a campaign. To make America great again is absolutely a campaign," he said.
The scenes playing out here could have come from Ohio, or Michigan, or Florida, in October during an acrimonious campaign. About 9,000 people, according to the Melbourne Police Department, crowded into the hangar, carrying "Hillary for Prison" signs, waving pompoms and winding almost a mile outside the airport. Classic hits played during the campaign — like "Tiny Dancer" by Elton John and "My Way" by Frank Sinatra — blared from the speakers.
A speaker who introduced Trump said he would be a great president, seemingly forgetting that he had already won. "Drain the swamp!" the crowd yelled. "CNN sucks!" the crowd yelled.
And Trump frequently painted a dire, bleak situation that "only I can fix," as he famously said.
"We don't win on trade, we don't win in any capacity," Trump said. "We're going to start winning again."
He seemed determined to convince the crowd his administration was doing well, while also convincing them that things are terrible and he "inherited a mess," as he frequently says.
He blamed Democrats for not confirming his appointments, not mentioning that hundreds of key appointments haven't been made. He talked about the rising stock market and the number of companies bringing jobs into the country. He crowed about deporting "drug dealers" who are illegal immigrants, not mentioning the fear his administration has caused in cities across the country. Restaurants, for example, shut down Thursday in solidarity against him.
He blamed a judge for the problems with his executive order on immigrants, not mentioning the chaos that even his aides privately admitted happened when he signed it while leaving many agency officials, White House aides and others out of the loop.
"The White House is running so smoothly," he said, contrary to accounts of dysfunction in the West Wing from his own aides, allies and supporters.
Trump promised to cut taxes and repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, giving few specifics. Congressional leaders say such an effort has been damaged by his changing positions and his administration's seeming inability to focus.
He vowed to build a wall along the Mexican border but didn't offer his traditional call-and-response with the crowd that Mexico would pay for it. He talked about the struggles in the economy while also bragging about how it was improving.
His supporters seemed to think his problems in office thus far have all been one conspiracy against him. "He's keeping all his promises," said Ligia Rodriguez, who lives near the rally site. "He's done more in one month than Obama did in eight years."
Her husband, Miguel, stood nearby. He also said Trump was doing a good job in office, and "he's saying what everyone wants to hear, and it's a good message."
"I just think he needs to learn how to get things done," he said. "There's a lot of contention around him."
After he spoke, hordes of supporters gathered in front of the cameras, waving their Trump signs, mocking and simultaneously trying to secure the attention of camera operators they feel ignore them. Across the country, his administration is facing near-daily protests.
In some ways, it appeared as if the 2020 election had already begun.
"It's a movement that's sweeping across the country; it's sweeping across the globe," Trump said.
Donald Trump warmed up for his first campaign rally as president, delivering on Friday what amounted to an abbreviated stump speech a day before he will formally return to the trail for a swing state rally this weekend.
Trump’s address at a Boeing facility in North Charleston, South Carolina, had nearly all the makings of the mega rallies he hosted throughout his rise from a once-long-shot Republican presidential candidate: a friendly crowd — which he insisted was record size — that at one point chanted “U-S-A.”
The differences between Friday’s photo-op and a campaign rally were subtle, the most notable distinctions being that Trump refrained from attacking the media and spoke with a new Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner behind him instead of his own personal aircraft. Trump himself even noted one variance from what had the unmistakable aura of a campaign rally.
“In the old days, when I made this speech, I got paid a whole lot of money. Now I have to do it for nothing,” Trump said, prompting laughter. “Not a good deal, but that’s OK. We love it.”
Speaking in a state where he claimed victory in the primary and general election, Trump reflected on South Carolina as a state that was supposed to be “tough to win” but, as he phrased it, “we won in a landslide.” He thanked officials who have supported him from the state, including current Gov. Henry McMaster and former Gov. Nikki Haley, the president’s ambassador to the United Nations.
His remarks — he spoke for about 15 minutes — were a condensed version of things he said during the campaign, sprinkled with rhetoric paying homage to his locale.
Trump heaped praise on the aircraft behind him, congratulating the men and women who built it. The plane, he said is “beautiful.” It’s “an amazing piece of art,” he added, and “an amazing piece of work,” even if it is 30 years old.
“Can you believe it? What can look so beautiful at 30?” Trump asked — and answered. “An airplane.”
He also detailed the specs of the aircraft: The 330-seat plane is made of carbon fiber and is 18 feet longer than the prior version.
“And this airplane can fly for half a day before it touches the ground. The name says it all: Dreamliner,” Trump said. “Great name. Our country is all about making dreams come true.”
“Over the last number of years that hasn’t been necessarily the case, but we’re gonna make it the case again,” he continued. “That’s what we do in America. We dream of things and then we build them. We turn vision into reality, and we will be doing a lot more of that — believe me — in the months and years to come.”
It marked a warm-up act, of sorts, as the president will next get a jumpstart on his 2020 campaign with a Saturday afternoon rally in Melbourne, Florida, just one month after being inaugurated as America’s 45th commander in chief.
It’s been a tumultuous month for Trump, whose administration has been dogged by leaks, protests, unfavorable court decisions, Cabinet delays, potential investigations over ethics violations and ties to Russia, conflicting narratives coming from his top aides, the withdrawal of his original labor secretary nominee, the ouster of his national security adviser and the rebuffing from the official whom Trump asked to replace him.
But Friday represented an opportunity to begin to reset the narrative. Trump will get a break from Washington and spend the next few days at his weekend White House, his Mar-A-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.
Largely sticking to the script on Friday, Trump spoke of rebuilding the military to create “peace through strength” and of his America-first strategy that he says will slash regulations, lower taxes, bring back jobs, punish companies that leave the country but try to sell their products here, and put an end to “tremendous cheating” in foreign trade.
“Already, American industry is roaring back, and believe me, if we, not me — I’m a messenger — if we didn’t have this victory, we wouldn’t be even talking about it,” Trump said. “Since November, jobs have already begun to surge.”
For as much as Friday’s event seemed like a rally, though, it also had hints of pandering. Trump at one point used the plane and the plant as a symbol for what America can achieve.
“Working together as a unit, there is nothing we cannot accomplish: no task too large, no dream too great, no goal beyond our reach,” Trump said. “Just like you built this incredible airplane behind me — both of them, when you think about it — we are going to rebuild this country.”
And if it wasn’t clear that he was playing to the crowd there, it was unmistakable in closing.
“God bless you,” Trump said. “May God bless the United States of America. And God bless Boeing.”
They call it the ‘I’ word.
Just a month into Donald Trump’s presidency, Democratic Party leaders are trying to rein in the talk of impeachment that’s animating the grass roots, the product of a restive base demanding deeper and more aggressive investigations into Trump’s ties to Russia.
Democratic officials in Republican-dominated Washington view the entire subject as a trap, a premature discussion that could backfire in spectacular fashion by making the party appear too overzealous in its opposition to Trump. Worse, they fear, it could harden Republican support for the president by handing his party significant fundraising and political ammunition when the chances of success for an early impeachment push are remote, at best.
“We need to assemble all of the facts, and right now there are a lot of questions about the president’s personal, financial and political ties with the Russian government before the election, but also whether there were any assurances made,” said California Rep. Eric Swalwell, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “Before you can use the ‘I’ word, you really need to collect all the facts."
“The ‘I’ word we should be focused on,” added Pennsylvania Rep. Brendan Boyle, “is 'investigations.'"
The problem for party lawmakers is that the hard-to-placate Democratic base has assumed a stop-Trump-at-all-costs posture. At a recent town hall in Albany, Oregon, Sen. Ron Wyden faced three questions about the issue. Rep. Jim McGovern, who was also confronted with the impeachment question at an event in Northampton, Mass., told his constituents it's not the right strategy for the moment, according to local reports. In California, a real estate broker has launched a challenge to Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher using a new “Impeach Trump Leadership PAC.”
But it’s not just furious rank-and-file Democrats who are raising the idea. A handful of Democratic House progressives — among them California Rep. Maxine Waters, Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin and Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro — have already publicly raised the specter of impeachment.
Waters has said she thinks Trump is marching himself down the path to impeachment, while Raskin — whose office was presented last week with a petition carrying more than 850,000 signatures calling for impeachment — has repeatedly brought up the prospect of voting for impeachment "at some point" in rallies and interviews. Castro has said Trump should be impeached if the president repeatedly instructs Customs and Border Protection officials to ignore federal judges' orders.
Some have read New York Rep. Jerry Nadler’s “resolution of inquiry” that could force the Department of Justice to share information about Trump’s Russian ties and conflicts of interest as a way to further lay the groundwork for impeachment.
“You see immense energy from people who want to resist the president. And that’s affecting the Congress,” said California Rep. Ted Lieu, who has said that a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives would impeach Trump. "A recent poll came out saying that 46 percent of Americans want the president impeached, and certainly members of Congress take notice."
Still, most congressional Democrats insist on drawing a line that stops far short of using the loaded term. Responding to Waters' impeachment chatter this month, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said, "When and if he breaks the law, that is when something like that would come up. But that's not the subject of today."
They believe that even if they did have enough evidence to start impeachment proceedings — which they don’t, since a number of investigations are still in their early stages, and Democrats can’t just impeach a president because they don’t like him — they wouldn’t have anywhere near enough votes as long as Trump-sympathetic Republicans control the majority.
Neither party leadership nor the campaign committees have circulated talking points or suggested ways to respond to impeachment questions that are starting to appear. But they are already aware of the potential electoral blowback to the party.
The mere mention of impeachment on the left has already kicked off a fundraising frenzy on the Republican side, with both the GOP House and Senate campaign wings raising cash off it — much like Democrats did under President Barack Obama when Republicans speculated about the prospect.
“No president has EVER endured the level of disrespect shown to President Trump. (It’s sickening) Unprecedented obstruction from the left on his cabinet nominees. Mockery and scorn from the liberal media. And now the liberal elite are calling for his impeachment … IN HIS FIRST MONTH,” reads a National Republican Senatorial Committee email from last week.
Since 12 House Democrats sit in seats won by Trump while 23 House Republicans serve districts won by Hillary Clinton, party operatives eyeing gains in the chamber fear that crossover voters could turn against Democrats if their party is perceived as reckless in its pursuit of Trump.
Nonetheless, the pressure to stand in Trump’s way has amped up on the ground in the days since the resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn, say party officials, and Democratic voters appear poised to pounce on any further revelations.
“The energy right now is really on Congress and trying to get some Republicans to find some backbone. As we see the Flynn stuff and the question of who asked him to make the call, that could change as it develops,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper, who’s been touring his state in a series of town hall meetings. “But for the moment people are focused on the most productive avenues for their frustrations, like ‘Call Pat Tiberi’ or 'Tell Rob Portman to vote against Scott Pruitt.’"
Rather than pursuing impeachment, most Hill Democrats are focusing their energies on persuading colleagues across the aisle to publicly support or join their investigations, viewing that as the most productive path forward. The brewing voter anger can only help them reach that goal, they believe.
“Both Democrats and Republicans are going home for the next 10 days for our district work period, and I suspect Republicans are going to hear a lot from home, from their constituents,” said Swalwell. “Before Flynn resigned, as this was boiling up over the weekend, Republicans I would run into in town would start to say, ‘What is going on?’ Even those who were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt."
Senate Democratic leadership is for now content with the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee taking the lead, while others have called for an independent, 9/11-style commission looking into Trump’s Russian ties. Urging the creation of such a group, the Democratic National Committee proclaimed that the scandal was already “bigger than Watergate."
Those ever-more-popular comparisons to Richard Nixon, accordingly, are as close to impeachment talk as most Democrats will get.
“There are eerie parallels,” said Boyle, "between the 1972 campaign going into ’73 and the beginning of the Watergate hearings, and the experience of 2016 going into 2017."
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus on Sunday flatly denied any involvement between President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russian officials.
“No,” Priebus said when asked by host Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday" about potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia officials.
Priebus said he’s spoken with high-level intelligence officials in Washington who have told him that no such involvement occurred.
“When I say top-level people, I mean top-level people,” the chief of staff said, refusing to provide specific names when pressed by Wallace about the sources.
Priebus also denied that retired Vice Adm. Robert Harward and retired Gen. David Petraeus, a former CIA director, were no longer in consideration to lead the National Security Council because they wanted more control over who sits on the council.
“The issue with Adm. Harward never came up,” Priebus said.
“The president has said very clearly" that the new director "will have total and complete say of the makeup of the NSC," Priebus said. "We’ve never put demands on an incoming NSC director.”
President Donald Trump vowed to gut the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Senate has just confirmed his man to do it.
Scott Pruitt, who was sworn in as EPA administrator early Friday evening, will wield vast power to reshape the 46-year-old, 15,000-person agency he has criticized so fiercely.
As Oklahoma's attorney general, Pruitt sued the agency at least 14 times — often in lockstep with fossil fuel companies — to try to overturn the agency's air and water regulations. He has questioned the role of humans play in climate change, while arguing that much of the agency's authority should be in the states' hands.
Now, Pruitt's actions — and the executive orders Trump is planning for the agency — could have repercussions for years.
“Most of the business community really is looking to Pruitt to make changes that will be enduring — not to do things that can easily be undone by the next administration, but really sensible things,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, a top EPA official in George W. Bush’s administration who is now at Bracewell LLP.
Here’s POLITICO’s guide to what to watch as Trump and Pruitt move to rein in the EPA, even as environmentalists plan to battle them in Congress and the courts:
1. Climate change: Trump and Pruitt have vowed to dramatically shift course on the Obama administration’s landmark climate change efforts. The president has threatened to pull out of the 2015 Paris climate deal, in which the U.S. and nearly 200 other nations agreed to make sharp cuts in their greenhouse gas output. And EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which requires cuts in the power industry’s carbon dioxide emissions, has a target on its back.
Pruitt is expected to swiftly begin the years-long process of repealing the Clean Power Plan. But an appellate court is set to rule on that regulation any day now, and it’s not clear that the judges would allow him to undo the rule right away. Moreover, any effort by Pruitt to undercut the regulation would have an easier time if the courts strike it down first. That legal fight probably won't be over until it reaches the Supreme Court.
But even if the Trump administration succeeds in killing the Clean Power Plan, Pruitt will still be on the hook to regulate carbon dioxide emissions because of the so-called endangerment finding — EPA's 2009 scientific conclusion that climate change threatens human health and welfare. Trump promised on the campaign trail to review and possibly revoke that finding, although Pruitt rejected that idea during his confirmation hearing.
“The endangerment finding is there and needs to be enforced and respected,” Pruitt told members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “There is nothing that I know that would cause a review at this point.”
2. Water protections: After years of legal confusion about which streams and wetlands deserve protection under the Clean Water Act, the Obama administration issued a landmark regulation in 2015 to cover head-water streams and some wetlands and ponds. Called the Waters of the U.S. rule, or WOTUS, the regulation sparked a fierce backlash from homebuilders, farmers and the oil and gas industry, which say it gives the federal government vast power over everything from stock ponds to puddles, and Trump has vowed to kill it.
Working in Trump's favor is the fact that the legal battle over the WOTUS rule isn’t as far along as the fight over the Clean Power Plan, so the administration may simply ask the courts to let it take another stab at crafting the regulation. Pruitt told lawmakers he would seek to rewrite it, although he also said he’d welcome a move by Congress to more clearly define where the line should be drawn — something lawmakers have failed to reach consensus on after nearly a decade of trying.
If Pruitt’s agency takes another stab at the water rule, expect it to sharply shrink the number of tributaries and wetlands that warrant federal protection. While environmental groups would oppose such efforts, sportsmen’s groups may be the political players to watch. Hunting and fishing groups care about the headwaters streams that are home to trout and other fish, and have proved to have pull with the Trump administration.
3. Executive orders: Trump is widely expected to sign one or more executive orders shortly after Pruitt takes the helm at the agency, setting the priorities and tone for his EPA. Top targets for the orders could include the agency’s climate change work, its broad enforcement powers or its overall approach to regulation.
Of course, executive orders are tied to the president who signs them, and the next administration can quickly undo them. But orders can also be used to set in motion a broader set of changes that aren’t as easily wiped out. For instance, industry groups have long urged EPA to change the way it measures the costs of new regulations, something that could significantly alter the labyrinthine regulatory review process for years. And businesses have sought to install experts more attuned to economic impacts on the agency’s advisory panels.
“If EPA were to expand that and appoint people who have a different way of looking at things, I think it would be hard to put back in the bottle,” Holmstead said.
4. Personnel: One early Trump adviser on the EPA, the fierce agency critic Myron Ebell, had a clear recommendation for reining it in: Slash the workforce.
His call to cut EPA’s staff by two-thirds got a lot of media attention but would be virtually impossible to accomplish, and the Trump administration has distanced itself from that recommendation. Still, attrition can pack a punch, especially when a number of employees are nearing retirement age and the promise of an unfriendly leader has sent morale plunging.
Even the temporary across-the-board federal hiring freeze in place now is having an impact. Catherine McCabe, who has served as acting EPA administrator for the past month, said last week that “the freeze on hiring is already creating some challenges to our ability to get the agency's work done,” in a video posted to the agency’s YouTube channel.
Environmentalists fear that effects on staffing under the Trump administration could be one of the blows to the agency that’s hardest to recover from.
“To get the experience, to get the staffing, to get the institutional knowledge — those are the kinds of things that happen sometimes below the radar screen, but can have a long-lasting effect,” said David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
5. Legislation: Truly lasting changes in the country’s approach to environmental regulation will require action by Congress. And after eight years of having their efforts met with veto threats from the White House, Republicans on Capitol Hill now see an opening.
But any such legislation will face a 60-vote threshold in the Senate, so a wholesale revamp that many in the GOP want to see is likely to remain out of reach.
Key Republican leaders have said they plan to take a rifle-shot approach to the Clean Air Act, and they may try again to influence the reach of the Clean Water Act. But even with a number of moderate Democrats facing reelection in 2018, it’s not clear that they’ll have the votes to get it through.
However, having Pruitt in place may reduce the intensity of annual appropriations battles, where Republicans in prior years have tried to use EPA spending bills to block implementation of key Obama administration rules. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the agency, said she did not expect to push riders blocking things like the WOTUS rule or Clean Power Plan because the Trump administration will already be working to reverse those.
“So, some of those that were pretty high-profile last year, I think we can say, ‘OK don’t need to worry about those,’” Murkowski told POLITICO.