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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

March 23: TrumpCare Hits Dead End, Or At Least Cul-De-Sac

Near the end of a crazy week in Washington, Republicans just postponed a House vote on their “must-pass” health care plan. I offered a quick explanation at New York.

[I]t was not terribly surprising given the news from a White House meeting earlier today between Donald Trump and members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, wherein Trump made a “final offer” and very few HFC folk bought it.

It had appeared Wednesday night that Trump and Paul Ryan might have found a way to blow this flawed bill out of the House by promising to include the repeal of Obamacare’s list of “essential benefits” heath plans needed to provide to qualify for federal subsidies (the list includes ten key categories, such as hospitalization, emergency services, and pregnancy care). That had previously been thought to be an unavailable concession thanks to Senate rules limiting budget reconciliation bills to budget-germane provisions. But those backing TrumpCare were now offering assurances (backed up by Sen. Mike Lee, a key Senate conservative who had opposed the original AHCA) the Senate parliamentarian would play ball with this broader bill. So presumably conservatives who wanted more of a complete repeal of Obamacare could, in theory, vote for the bill in the House and then vote against the final House-Senate conference report in case the reports about the parliamentarian’s flexibility were in error or just a ruse.

But the gambit backfired when HFC members meeting with Trump pocketed the “essential benefits” concession and demanded more. According to one account, they wanted even highly popular provisions like protections for people with pre-existing provisions and allowing dependents up to age 26 going on their parents’ policies to be repealed. Regardless of the exact demands, it’s clear conservatives called Trump’s and Ryan’s bluff: if all Obamacare regulations are now on the table, why stop with one or two?

Indeed, even before the vote cancellation, influential conservative commentator Ramesh Ponnuru was arguing that the new information about the parliamentarian meant Republicans should rethink the whole bill, not rush it out of the House. And if nothing shakes loose in the next few days, that may be the new GOP excuse for additional delay.

The trouble is this: even if these reports are right and Republicans don’t have to wait for some improbable second or third “prong” of regulatory or legislative action to get rid of Obamacare, GOP conservatives and “moderates” don’t agree at all on which provisions to trash and which to keep. And the search for a compromise won’t be improved by a fight over features of the bill that could easily be understood and “scored” as making life worse for real-live categories of people now benefiting from the Affordable Care Act.

For now Republicans at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have reached a cul-de-sac on health care and need either to turn around and try a different path or pull off some sort of politically dangerous minor miracle. This very bad week for Donald Trump has gotten a lot worse, and for once Paul Ryan is his full partner in misery.

Stay tuned for more GOP health care madness.


March 17: Maybe Trump Can Save Travel Ban, But It Won’t Be Easy

Having watched the legal maneuvering around the Trump administration’s first, poorly written travel ban, I was on notice for challenges to the new, improved executive order. And they did come from several directions, as I noted at New York:

[D]espite a major revision of the order to “fix” problems the courts found in the initial action, not one but two federal district judges, in two widely separated judicial circuits, have put it on hold.

Worse yet, in both cases (Judge Derrick Watson in Hawaii, and Judge Theodore Chuang in Maryland) the problem the judges identified was not something any revision could likely “cure”: It is the claim that the whole process is just a thinly veiled effort to implement a blatantly unconstitutional “Muslim ban,” as evidenced by Donald Trump’s own proposals during the presidential campaign.

So what’s an “America First” president to do?

The most prudent course of action might well be to forget about the temporary travel ban and move on as quickly as possible to the new system for vetting applicants for visas and for refugee status the ban was supposed to give the administration time to develop. Max Zapotsky explains:

“The administration was supposed to have been working on that review the first time around, but with a new order came new deadlines. Although it probably wants to win in court to avoid an authority-curtailing precedent …the administration could simply finish its review and implement new vetting procedures that did not impose an outright ban. That might make the litigation moot.”

This approach, of course, would involve surrender to the “so-called judges” who have stood in Trump’s way, so that is very unlikely, particularly after Trump devoted ten fiery minutes at a rally in Nashville last night attacking the “judicial overreach” and threatening to bring back the original, broader order.

That idea probably occurred to Trump (or someone in TrumpLand) because in something of a coincidence the full Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided yesterday not to vacate the earlier order on the first travel ban (issued by a three-judge panel) denying the administration a go-ahead on national-security grounds. In dissent, five judges said the courts should have deferred to the president’s national-security authority the first time around. So there is some conservative judicial support for that proposition, even on the “liberal” Ninth Circuit.

But again: These were dissenters, and the odds are very low the full Ninth Circuit or any particular three-judge panel of same will reach that conclusion if and when the administration appeals Watson’s ruling. In agreeing to make the revision, the White House was implicitly conceding it did some pretty sloppy work back in January. Though Trump’s ego might want a total vindication, it’s not likely to succeed unless the Supreme Court intervenes on his behalf after some additional judicial setbacks.

The more conventional approach would be to stick with the revision and instead go after the finding that Trump’s (and Rudy Giuliani’s) comments on the campaign trail are relevant to what he is trying to do as president. At Lawfare this morning, Peter Margulies argues the administration will eventually prevail on that point.

But it might take a while, and involve a long and winding road to the Supreme Court. Knocking down Watson’s order will take the government through the obviously not very sympathetic Ninth Circuit. And even if they succeed, there’s Chuang’s order, which applies only to the visa application portions of the travel ban (because that’s all the plaintiffs in the case were challenging). Overturning that order means going through the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Assuming the case does get to the Supreme Court, timing would be a big issue. For one thing, the Court is currently shorthanded. If, however, the administration waits to make its pitch for SCOTUS intervention until Trump’s nominee Neil Gorsuch is confirmed, that could make for additional delay. Since the official position of the White House is that terrorists are likely pouring over the borders and into the airports every moment the travel ban is not in place, a posture of accepting delays doesn’t make a lot of sense.

What we are probably facing, then, is a murky and complicated schedule of legal maneuverings punctuated occasionally by judge-bashing explosions from the president of the United States. It may not be the smartest way for him to get his way, but for a man whose main fear in life seems to be the appearance of looking “weak” (his frequently expressed concern about the travel-ban delays), it may be the only way Donald Trump can handle it.

I feel sorry for his lawyers.


March 16: Trump Budget a Throwback

After looking at the outline released today of Donald Trump’s first budget, I kept getting a sense of deja vu. I explained why at New York.

The conservative lobbying group Heritage Action greeted Donald Trump’s first budget (really a budget outline; the full details will come later) with the headline: TRUMP’S BIG LEAGUE CONSERVATIVE BUDGET REQUEST. That’s an appropriate take, and not just because the group’s parent organization, the Heritage Foundation, has left fingerprints all over the proposal, hastily assembled by a less than complete OMB staff. It is, in many respects, a sort of “greatest hits” compilation of conservative prescriptions for paying for a big defense-spending increase with targeted and general cuts in nondefense discretionary programs — domestic spending that is not in one of the big entitlement programs.

The fact that it’s all wrapped up in the bristling “America First” language of nationalist “populism” — with a few distinctive flourishes like a truly neanderthal attack on the State Department that takes one back to the McCarthy era — should not distract from the fact that this is a very conventionally conservative budget prepared by the very conventionally conservative OMB director Mick Mulvaney.

Those who remember the budget wars of the Reagan era will find a lot of blasts from the past in the list of agencies and programs Mulvaney is proposing to shutter entirely: the Appalachian Regional Commission, Community Development Block Grants, the Economic Development Administration, the Legal Services Corporation, Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation — all were surviving targets of Reagan’s first budget in 1981. Other targets are products of the later culture wars: federal funding of the arts and culture would be basically eliminated, with the closure of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And still other programs Team Trump seeks to kill involve initiatives associated closely with Democratic presidents, such as the Corporation for National and Community Service (including Bill Clinton’s signature AmeriCorps program) and Barack Obama’s various clean-energy and climate-change initiatives.

Along with the individual constituencies affected, it’s reasonably clear state and local governments will be unhappy with the budget, as they have been unhappy with most Republican presidential budgets over the years. Again and again in Mulvaney’s document you see reductions or eliminations of small grant programs justified as being things states and localities should pay for themselves. And that’s aside from the big-ticket cuts like EPA grants and CDBG (the last significant source of general-purpose funding for local governments).

Another notable and familiar feature of the budget is what you might call cannibalization: Within major agencies Trump priorities are funded by cuts in things his people don’t know or care about. That’s how you wind up with an “America First” budget that hammers a variety of Department of Homeland Defense programs (including the Coast Guard, TSA, and FEMA) in order to shower money on the Wall and border control….

[T]he Trump budget’s fate will mostly fall to the Appropriations committees, those notoriously picky barons who tend to reject executive-branch dictation over “their” programs. It’s appropriators and their staffs who are already out there declaring Mulvaney’s handiwork “dead on arrival.”

And that’s probably okay with Team Trump, which seems to be using the whole budget exercise to send messages rather than to get anything done. Mulvaney in effect took off the green eyeshade of the budget wonk and put on his MAGA hat — maybe a military version in khaki — in describing the budget:

“It is not a soft-power budget. This is a hard-power budget, and that was done intentionally. The president very clearly wants to send a message to our allies and to our potential adversaries that this is a strong-power administration.”

Yep, it’s a Big League Conservative Budget Request, and like many others, it should be taken with a shaker of salt.


March 10: “So-Called” Judges Still a Threat To Revised Trump Travel Ban

The revised Trump travel ban released this week addresses a lot of the original order’s legal problems. But it’s still haunted by the suspicion it’s really just a “Muslim ban,” as I noted at New York:

Seattle-based federal District Court Judge James Robart — famously called a “so-called judge” by the president of the United States for putting a hold on the Trump administration’s hasty and sloppy travel-ban executive order — will be back in the spotlight again, as a revised travel ban receives judicial scrutiny. Three states (original travel-ban petitioner Washington, plus New York and Oregon) are asking Robart to rule that his original suspension applies to the new order as well.

Washington attorney general Bob Ferguson, who announced the new petition, does not seem to care about the administration’s assertions that it took care of the problems that snarled its earlier travel ban. “The court decides that, not the president,” he said.

“Ferguson and other state lawyers said they believe the burden is on the government to convince a judge that the freeze should not be in effect, rather than the other way around.”

If Robart agrees, there will at least be another round of hearings in federal court. Whether Trump explodes at this George W. Bush appointee then, or waits to see what he ultimately decides to do, will be an interesting question that could threaten the “presidential” image he conveyed in his speech to Congress last week.

In any event, Robart will have a chance to weigh in before a colleague in Hawaii holds a hearing next Wednesday on a parallel suit by the State of Hawaii. In both suits, the key issue will likely be whether the first or the second travel ban represents nothing more than a fig leaf for an unconstitutional ban on Muslims.

And it’s another reason to watch the news, and Trump’s Twitter feed, over the weekend.


March 9: Republicans Prepare To Fire the Scorekeepers to Save Trumpcare

The amazing dumpster fire over the new Republican health care plan had a sudden burst of deceptive heat and light as the GOP began to defend the bill against its actual consequences. I explained at New York.

There have been a lot of raised eyebrows about congressional Republicans rushing out an Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill before it could be “scored” — that is, evaluated for its impact on federal spending and revenues and health-care coverage — by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Generally, CBO scoring would be a foundational step before trying to advance legislation significantly overhauling an industry that constitutes 20 percent of the national economy. One reason for the hastiness is that Republicans wanted to get something out there before its members go home for a long and potentially protest-filled Easter recess and perhaps come back gun-shy. Another is that they are on a self-imposed (and potentially self-imploding) timetable to get health care out of the way so they can deal with other legislative priorities, including a giant tax-cut bill.

But it is the third reason for not waiting on CBO that is looking most compelling right now: Republicans are terrified that CBO’s numbers will paint a disastrous picture of the American Health Care Act’s impact. The bill has problems enough without being described by Congress’s own hirelings as a bill that blows up budget deficits, throws many millions of people out of their health insurance, and, perhaps most importantly, undermines the tax cuts and defense-spending increases Republicans are itching to enact by setting a baseline that already looks bad.

Indeed, as Jennifer Haberkorn reports, there is so much Republican angst over what CBO might say that there is a sudden barrage of advance criticism of the agency, which is likely to reveal its score later this week or early next week:

“Anticipating that their plan will leave fewer Americans insured than Obamacare and potentially cost the federal government more, Republican leaders on Tuesday launched a preemptory strike against forthcoming predictions from Congress’s independent scorekeeper, the Congressional Budget Office.”

When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called for the abolition of CBO back in January, most observers probably chuckled at the old bomb-thrower insisting that an objective assessment of GOP plans would screw everything up. Now that’s rapidly becoming the conventional wisdom. Keep in mind that Republicans, after taking control of both congressional chambers in 2014, hired CBO’s current director, George W. Bush administration veteran Keith Hall. It’s safe to say that Hall hardly resembles Gingrich’s description of CBO as a “left-wing, corrupt, bureaucratic defender of big government and liberalism.”

So what’s the solution? Republicans seem to have found an alternative source of authoritative-sounding numbers that is more ideologically reliable: the Office of Management and Budget, which is directly under the control of the president:

“Republicans are going so far as releasing their own estimates. The Office of Management and Budget, part of the Trump White House, is expected to issue its own estimates of the plan, according to several Republican senators.”

This helps explain why Trump’s OMB director, Mick Mulvaney, is suddenly being described as a “player” in the GOP’s very crowded health-care-policy arena. As budget maven Stan Collender pointed out when Gingrich proposed eliminating CBO, such a step would quite literally turn the clock back to those pre-1974 days when OMB was the only “scoring” entity, and Congress had no independent source of information. In the end Congress can use whatever numbers it chooses. But trying to boost the credibility of its agenda by cooking the books is probably not going to be a very persuasive approach.

One would normally think Mulvaney had enough on his plate — developing Trump’s first budget, for example — without having to leap into the middle of the health-care fray. That’s how panicked Republicans have become by the consequences of their shoddy work on repealing and replacing Obamacare. It’s one thing to work the refs when you are in danger of losing a game. It’s another thing altogether to fire and replace the scorekeeper while the ball’s in play.


March 3: So Much for Sessions’ Integrity

When the revelation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador broke, I did this instant reaction for New York. Nothing that’s happened subsequently changed my opinion:

The revelation that then-Senator Jeff Sessions did not disclose two conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States when asked about such contacts during his confirmation hearings may or may not expose him to a perjury charge. Perjury is a rarely prosecuted crime, and it is unclear who would be in a position to prosecute the man who now heads up the federal government’s machinery of justice.

But there’s the rub: Should anyone willing to lie under oath — or even play shyster word games with the truth in a unquestionably mendacious effort to hide contacts with a foreign government suspected of tampering with a presidential election — continue as chief law enforcement officer of the United States? That is the question that will be asked many times in the days just ahead.

And in the specific case of Jeff Sessions, the damage to his reputation from this disclosure could be even worse. He is, after all, a self-styled Mr. Law-and-Order, whose supposed respect for the rule of law is so unshakable that it leads him to turn a cold shoulder to those who would lighten the sentences of low-level drug offenders or provide a path to citizenship for people who entered the country illegally. During his confirmation hearings and the debate in the Senate, Sessions’s friends again and again cited his “integrity” as so unquestionable that those alleging impure motives on his part during his days as a federal prosector were guilty of slander and even character assassination. The notion that Sessions’s reputation for integrity was the crown jewel of his career was also the basis for Mitch McConnell’s extraordinary action in silencing Elizabeth Warren for trying to read a letter from the late Coretta Scott King challenging his self-characterization as an evenhanded enforcer of civil-rights laws.

McConnell himself went to great lengths to reinforce the argument that whatever one thought of Sessions’s politics and policy positions, his straight-arrow awe for the law made it all good.

“It’s been tough to watch all this good man has been put through in recent weeks. This is a well-qualified colleague with a deep reverence for the law.”

Well, maybe not so much in the equal application of the law to himself.

Under pressure from Republicans as well as Democrats in Congress, Sessions has agreed to recuse himself from any investigation of possibly inappropriate discussions between the Trump campaign and Russian officials or agents. But even if nothing more comes out about his contacts with the Russian embassy or what went through his mind when he chose not to forthrightly answer questions about such contacts, Sessions is now seriously damaged goods after all the endless and interminable and redundant assurances he and his friends have made about his spotless honesty and love for the majesty of the law. He should have told the whole truth during his confirmation hearings. That’s the simple proposition that all the finger-pointing and blame-shifting his allies try to utilize to get him out of this self-imposed jam cannot obscure.

Whether or not he keeps his job, Sessions’ reputation for probity is gone for good.


March 1: Trump Says He Really Wants To Leave Hundreds of Key Federal Positions Empty

The day before giving his address to a joint session of Congress, President Trump said something astonishing in a Fox News interview that should have freaked out conservatives as well as liberals. I tried to draw attention to it at New York:

Here’s what [Trump] said to Fox News this morning:

“A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint someone because they’re unnecessary to have,” Trump said. “In government, we have too many people.”

Keep in mind the jobs we are talking about here include the top sub-Cabinet positions that set policies and provide the day-to-day operations for vast government departments. Just yesterday, the conservative Washington Examiner explained that these are precisely the positions someone like Trump needs to fill if he is serious about “draining the swamp” in Washington:

“Grant Reeher, a political science professor at Syracuse University, said the quality of political appointees below the Cabinet level can have a dramatic effect on how administration policies are ultimately executed.

“‘Do they affect the operation of government? The short answer is very much,” Reeher said. ‘These are the folks who actually attempt to implement the policy changes that the administration is trying to push down from above.’

“Reeher said the relationships between politically appointed officials in top positions and the career bureaucrats who make up the rest of the federal government are ‘critical’ for ensuring policies get put in place smoothly.

So using these top positions to achieve reductions in the size of the bureaucracy, as Trump seems to suggest is his rationale, is a pretty classic unforced error. It’s like trying to reduce overcrowding in schools by firing most of the teachers.

One might be tempted to think the president misspoke out of a desire to avoid admitting his team hasn’t gotten its act together just yet. Earlier he tried to blame the slow pace of appointments on Senate Democrats obstructing confirmations, before it was pointed out how few nominations had been made in the first place.

But Trump seems serious about this claim that he wants empty offices all across the top tier of his administration. So we can only hope his Cabinet secretaries don’t mind working nights and weekends, to make up for the lack of help — or significantly scaling back their plans.

Yep, that’s some “fine-tuned machine” Donald Trump is running.


February 24: Trump Offers Conservatives the World If They Give Him Their Souls

After watching and pondering Donald Trump’s speech to a large roomful of conservatives at CPAC, I no longer had any doubt about the 45th president’s relationship with the GOP and its long-dominant faction. I wrote up my conclusions for New York:

Amazingly, Trump spoke for an extended period to an exclusively conservative audience and never used the terms liberty or limited government or free enterprise. He used the word freedom exactly twice. Once was in a reference to the TPP agreement being a threat to “our economic freedom,” a characterization that — until recently — few mainstream conservatives would support. The other was in boasting about his election win:

“The victory and the win were something that really was dedicated to a country and people that believe in freedom, security and the rule of law. Our victory…(APPLAUSE)… was a victory and the win for conservative values.”

That was also the speech’s only clear reference, explicitly or implicitly, to the brand of conservative values that have dominated the discourse at CPAC for decades.

Trump did offer a lot of crowd-pleasing lines, roughly divided equally between attacks on common enemies like the non-conservative elements of the news media, and promises to pursue specific policies most conservatives like, from defense spending increases to tax cuts to deregulation to aggressive exploitation of fossil fuels.

But invariably Trump framed his policies not with the traditional memes of movement conservatism, but as expressions of his one clear guiding principle: nationalism. Or, as he put it: “The core conviction of our movement is that we are a nation that will put its own citizens first.”

While patriotism, of course, is a common touchstone for American conservatives (and for liberals, though conservatives often have trouble acknowledging it), nationalism disassociated from the idea that America distinctively stands for universal values — e.g., freedom or “liberty” or limited government — is not a value Republicans have traditionally embraced. Presumably many of the same people who cheered Trump at CPAC also cheered George W. Bush when he used to talk about freedom and democracy being America’s gift to the world, a gift worth fighting to defend and extend — rhetoric Ronald Reagan also used throughout his career (otherwise his favorite rhetorical reference to America as “a shining city on a hill” is nonsensical).

The idea that Trump isn’t asking conservatives to change that much simply is not true. He’s asking them to acknowledge that discarding their most cherished positions in order to vanquish their foes and achieve their immediate goals is absolutely necessary, with his electoral victory after the defeat of more conventional leaders like McCain and Romney being the proof. And thus he represents the eternal temptation of right-bent political thinkers and actors everywhere and at every time to overcome their scruples and embrace “populist” demagogues.

As Trump ended his speech and the room was filled with his odd campaign anthem, the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” for the first time I saw the song as entirely appropriate. Conservatives cannot elect a president who talks only or mostly of freedom and capitalism or of those Western values that transcend the nation-state. But they can win with Trump, so they’ll get what they need, at the mere expense of their principles, if not their souls.

It’s a deal with the devil most of them seem more than willing to take.


February 23: Trump Bending Conservatism To His Will

Going into this week’s annual CPAC conference, I thought it would be a good idea to examine the power dynamics between the new regime and the conservative movement that once kept its difference from Trump. I did so at New York earlier this week:

The chief celebrant [at CPAC] will, of course, be the president of the United States, Donald Trump, who welcomes every chance to display his political success and bask in the adulation of people who very likely viewed him as a sideshow act during his previous appearances at CPAC in 2011, 2013, and 2015. This year’s CPAC caps the remarkable process whereby this heretic not only became acceptable to conservatives during the course of the 2016 campaign, but is rapidly placing his stamp on conservatism as we know it —in the past a durable ideology that transcended constant arguments over strategy and tactics. It is safe to say that a lot, perhaps a majority, of those who will hear Trump speak Friday morning could not have imagined the scene just two years ago. So the question that will come up again and again at CPAC is whether Trump is adjusting himself to conservatism now that he leads America’s conservative party, or whether conservatism is fundamentally changing to accommodate his power and voter appeal.

Luckily for Trump, CPAC is occurring before any major rifts have opened up between his nascent administration and the Republican leadership of Congress. So the mood is likely to be upbeat, with various factions on the right all seeing what they want to see in the road just ahead. Don’t let the brouhaha over Milo Yiannopoulos’s scheduled and then canceled appearance fool you, though: The furor he aroused among conservatives was more about issues relating to his provocative treatment of his own gay sexuality (very recently CPAC was roiled by arguments as to whether pro-gay-rights conservative groups were even welcome as paying sponsors of the event) than about his role as a legitimizer of the seedier side of the alt-right. Yes, an ACU board member is scheduled to assail the alt-right in a speech Thursday morning. But that may be part of a process to limn the limits within which Trumpian nationalism will be fully embraced.

And embraced it most definitely will be. The Washington Post’s veteran conservative watchers Robert Costa and David Weigel had this assessment:

“This year’s CPAC schedule represents a marked shift toward Trump’s politics and penchant for showmanship. Nigel Farage, the pro-Brexit politician from Britain who spoke to an emptying room in 2015, will speak the same morning as Trump. Reality TV star Dog the Bounty Hunter will appear with a super PAC trying to draft Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a regular Trump supporter on the cable news circuit, into Wisconsin’s 2018 Senate race.

“’There used to be Pat Buchanan’s people, the populist ­revolt-types and the establishment of the anti-establishment, who’d get a third of the vote in the primaries and we’d beat them back,’” said Mike Murphy, a veteran Republican consultant who led a super PAC that supported former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. ‘Now they’ve hijacked the Republican Party.’”

Murphy is the rare bitter-end #NeverTrump conservative who is still speaking out against the new regime. The vast majority of former Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich supporters who are going along with Trump, with or without private misgivings, are probably more likely to think CPAC is seducing Trump rather than succumbing to his sinister blandishments. But it is hard to deny the different tone of this particular CPAC. I count eight separate appearances by Brietbart writers on the agenda. The very first speaker when the full event begins tomorrow is Kellyanne Conway. Later that day Stephen Bannon and Reince Priebus will appear together. As Costa and Weigel explain, the symbolism of that appearance is not lost on anyone:

By sitting with Priebus, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, Bannon aims to showcase how the party guard and formerly obscure players on the right are in power and working together to enact a new kind of conservative agenda, the official said, one that is directed at reaching working-class voters who are disillusioned with the global economy and elites.
The new crowd at CPAC will displace certain once-prominent members of the old crowd. From 2007 through 2015, the CPAC presidential straw poll was won four times by Mitt Romney, twice by Ron Paul, and three times by Rand Paul. Romney and the Pauls will be nowhere in sight at this CPAC. That may help answer the underlying question of (to borrow Aretha Franklin’s phrase) who’s zooming who in the relationship between conservatism and Team Trump.


February 17: Trump Kills the Traditional Presidential Presser

Like most political observers, I watched Donald Trump’s Thursday press conference–if that’s what you want to call it–with a mixture of fascination and horror. On reflection, I wrote these observations for New York:

Donald Trump’s impromptu 80-minute press conference today was by all accounts an unprecedented event. To journalists accustomed to the traditional presidential press conference, it was an interminable violation of all the rules — not just of presidential-media relations, but of grammar, logic, decorum, and even political common sense. Trump brought up, unbidden, his own past mistakes in order to fulminate about how they were covered months ago. He changed subjects constantly and unpredictably, beginning with the fact that the whole thing began as an announcement of his new Labor Secretary nominee, Alexander Acosta, but soon went far, far afield and never returned. He insulted members of the working press before, during, and after their questions; he suggested one African-American reporter set up a meeting for him with the Congressional Black Caucus because he assumed they were probably “your friends.” And just when one outrage concluded, another began, world without end.

Here was Politico’s take:

“It was an extraordinary scene in the White House, which Trump essentially turned into a venue for a campaign rally, trashed the country’s most influential news outlets, cited approval polls and spread misinformation. It came two days before Trump will hit the road for a campaign rally in Florida, where he said the crowds would be ‘massive.'”

What seems plain in retrospect is that Trump has no intention, at least at present, to use presidential press conferences the way his predecessors have employed them: to convey information to the American people via the media, sometimes despite the media’s efforts to impose an uncongenial interpretation on the intended “message.” Presidents have varied in their skill at this game; some, most famously Richard Nixon, descended into an openly antagonistic relationship with journalists; virtually all the others have on occasion played favorites or “punished” disfavored reporters or outlets by denying access. But nobody until now has used a press conference to send one basic message over and over: With a few exceptions the people in this room are all lying scoundrels and you should not believe a word they say. Because that was Trump’s message: Every grievance he could dredge up, dating back to the ups and downs of the campaign trail, found its way into his tongue-lashing of the media today.

And that is why he by no means came across as the fearful Nixonian pol grudgingly giving his media enemies as little time as possible for questioning after his opening remarks, and then getting out of the room with as little damage as possible. As Trump said, he was enjoying the whole spectacle, and extended it again and again. And why not? If his goal was to convince his supporters that the media is their, as well as his, sworn enemy, then the longer he baited reporters and the longer they responded with obvious chagrin and efforts to pin him down, the more he succeeded. Had it gone on all day, it would have just reinforced the vast gap between his world and that of the people his senior counsel Stephen Bannon calls “the opposition party.”

“Tomorrow, they will say, ‘Donald Trump rants and raves at the press.’ I’m not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you. You know, you’re dishonest people. But — but I’m not ranting and raving. I love this. I’m having a good time doing it….”

Working journalists are, of course, left wondering how to deal with the role Trump has assigned them as cartoon villains who deploy “facts” and “logic” to try to trip up the man who is just too wily to play their malicious game. It is hard to change the behavior of a politician who craves media criticism —the more the better — the way a wino craves cheap muscatel. The fact that he acts genuinely aggrieved at such criticism even as he courts it — and for all we know, his alleged pain may even be genuine — makes it all the harder to treat him normally.

Perhaps the most important thing to happen at today’s press conference is that respectable Republicans in Washington and elsewhere had to be at least disturbed a bit by the spectacle, which no one could imagine any prior Republican president since Nixon, and probably not even the Tricky One, producing. At some point they will have to ask themselves exactly how much damage to traditional politics and government they are willing to accept in exchange for cutting taxes, criminalizing abortion, or giving the people who own most of the country relief from regulations.