washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

March 31: Opposition to Medicaid Expansion: It’s Not the Money, It’s the Ideology

There was a brief flurry of excitement this week about the possibility of more states accepting the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. I poured some cold water on the idea at New York:

The train wreck involving the American Health Care Act in the U.S. House last week offered a burst of fresh hope to those in the 19 states that have not yet accepted the Medicaid expansion authorized by the Affordable Care Act and made optional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Most versions of GOP health legislation have canceled the expansion and its generous federal funding with variations in terms of speed and ferocity. The version of AHCA that slipped and fell while approaching the House floor contained a flat prohibition on any new expansions, reportedly at the behest of the House Freedom Caucus.

Coincidentally or not, early this week a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Kansas legislature sent conservative governor Sam Brownback a bill designed to make that state the 32nd to expand Medicaid eligibility to poor people without children or disabilities…. But alas for any sense of momentum for Medicaid expansions, Brownback promptly vetoed the legislation, with a message that should remind everyone that rejection of the expansion has often been about ideology rather than money:

“I am vetoing this expansion of ObamaCare because it fails to serve the truly vulnerable before the able-bodied, lacks work requirements to help able-bodied Kansans escape poverty, and burdens the state budget with unrestrainable entitlement costs.

“Most grievously, this legislation funnels more taxpayer dollars to Planned Parenthood and the abortion industry. From its infancy, the state of Kansas has affirmed the dignity and equality of each human life. I will not support this legislation that continues to fund organizations that undermine a culture of life.”

Alrighty then!

Vox has just conducted a quick survey of the non-expansion states and didn’t find much new activity despite some optimistic talk from expansion proponents. Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe has launched a new Medicaid-expansion campaign, but unless Democrats make gains in the legislature he will continue to be blocked. In Maine a ballot initiative has already been certified for November of this year to force an expansion that Governor Paul LePage has bitterly opposed.

There’s some mysterious talk in Georgia about Governor Nathan Deal’s administration approaching former Georgia congressman and now HHS Secretary Tom Price for “major changes” to the Medicaid program. Under HHS’ previous management, this might have been an allusion to one of those deals the Obama administration encouraged whereby states were given waivers to conduct conservative policy experiments with the entire Medicaid program in exchange for grudgingly accepting expansion and the massive federal funding that accompanied it. Since the Trump administration doesn’t support the expansion in the first place, it’s unlikely that it will be interested in bribing additional states into going along. It’s more likely Georgia will seek and perhaps receive permission to do unpleasant things to the existing Medicaid population.

All in all, the AHCA fiasco removed a big new disincentive to additional Medicaid expansions. But it didn’t remove the determination of conservatives in many states to reject free money to achieve better health coverage on grounds that it would benefit the undeserving, or make government too popular. That’s a forever thing.

March 30: A Health Care Zombie Apocalypse?

Just when you thought it was safe to write a firm post mortem of GOP efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare this year, strange growling noises emerged from Congress and the White House. I wrote about them at New York.

It seems the source of this alleged reanimation may be the GOP faction most attributed as causing Trumpcare’s death — hard-core conservatives associated with the House Freedom Caucus. Just before the story broke of renewed high-level GOP meetings on health care, Representative Mo Brooks, a Republican from Alabama and a Freedom Caucus bravo who was an announced opponent of AHCA, let it be known he was filing a “discharge petition” to force a House vote on a simple Obamacare repeal (presumably similar to what Congress passed last year in the safe knowledge Barack Obama would veto it). It’s an extreme, long-shot measure to bypass the committee system and the leadership, made sensible only by the Freedom Caucus’s dogmatic belief those enslaved by Obamacare would rattle their chains and bellow their support for such a measure.

While it’s unclear whether Brooks’s determination to force health care back onto the GOP agenda had anything to do with it, something must have sent an impulse into the slowly cooling cadaver of the dead bill. According to the New York Times, there’s activity across the full spectrum of Republican opinion, with the unlikeliest ringleader of all:

“The new talks, which have been going on quietly this week, involve Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, and members of the two Republican factions that helped sink the bill last week, the hard-right Freedom Caucus and the more centrist Tuesday Group.”

It is abundantly unclear how these talks will fare any differently than earlier talks that exposed the deep divide between conservatives who thought AHCA was too generous and “moderates” who though it was too stingy, particularly since every available compromise seemed to make the disastrous coverage and cost numbers the Congressional Budget Office assigned to the legislative product even worse. Bannon’s involvement is even stranger, though obviously if he were able to pull off a legislative feat that eluded Paul Ryan, the cheering in Breitbart-land would be ear-shattering.

The story keeps getting odder. At his daily press briefing yesterday, Sean Spicer provided his usual clarity when asked about the reported revivification:

“Staff has met with individuals and listened to them….
Have we had some discussions and listened to ideas? Yes. Are we actively planning an immediate strategy? Not at this time … So there has been a discussion and I believe there will be several more.”

Paul Ryan, probably wanting to make it clear Bannon hasn’t cut him out of the picture, churned still more fog into the air:

“We want to get it right,” Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters after a GOP conference meeting Tuesday. “We’re going to keep talking to each other until we get it right. I’m not going to put a timeline on it, because this is too important to not get right and to put an artificial timeline on it.”

Meanwhile, Ryan’s Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, was having nothing of it:

“Mcconnell [sic] making clear Obamacare repeal efforts dead. ‘We have the existing law in place and we’ll just have to see how that works out.'”

If that’s not enough Republican confusion for you, there are fresh reports today that some GOP senators don’t agree with McConnell, and remain interested in moving their own repeal-and-replace legislation, independently from what the House is thinking about doing.

And to top it all off, the president of the United State told a bipartisan group of senators last night that enacting a health-care bill was going to be a snap:

“I know that we are all going to make a deal on health care.

“That’s such an easy one.”

All this talk had better materialize into action pretty quickly, or it may be too late. Anti-abortion activists are already eyeing the abandoned reconciliation instrument that was supposed to make passage of Trumpcare easier, and demanding that it be used for their pet cause, the defunding of Planned Parenthood, so that that item won’t wind up being filibustered by Democrats as part of a stopgap appropriations bill. For those still discussing health-care legislation, it’s use-it-or-lose-it time. The dead can’t walk much longer.

March 24: And The Next GOP Health Plan Will Be: How About Never? Does Never Work For You?

In the wake of the rapid and total collapse of the American Health Care Act today, I sat down to write at New York about the GOP’s health care policy options going forward, before realizing there might not be any. Here were my thoughts:

The good news for Republicans that nobody much appreciates right now is that there was nothing mandatory about this whole messy enterprise. Yes, if they just give up on enacting a budget-reconciliation bill for fiscal year 2017 (that’s technically what the American Health Care Act is), they will defy the “instructions” they gave themselves back on January 13 when they enacted the budget resolution that put this runaway train in motion. Yes, there are both political and fiscal consequences for just bagging it. But there’s no judge who will fine them for it. So technically, the president is right: They can “move on,” and they can “punish” the American people by letting the Affordable Care Act stay in place.

And there was certainly nothing in Speaker Paul Ryan’s press conference after the bill was pulled to suggest any present intention to go back to the drawing board and come up with another bill. He admitted repeatedly that Obamacare would be in place “for the foreseeable future.” And then Donald Trump put the lid on the coffin by repeatedly saying nothing would happen on health care until Democrats joined in after Obamacare “explodes.”

Barring some second wind for a repeal/replace effort, or the unquenchable possibility that Donald Trump will change his mind, it will probably become an agenda item that slips into the future, or at least until 2018. The possible exception, particularly if the current system of individual health insurance continues to struggle with higher premiums and the withdrawal of insurers from purchasing exchanges, would be for Republicans to ask Democrats to cooperate in some sort of “fix” that they could market as sort of repeal-and-replace on the cheap.

Is it possible Democrats would be interested in this sort of deal once they finish celebrating the implosion of Trumpcare? Probably not anytime soon. The only vehicle for a bipartisan compromise at the moment is the Cassidy-Collins proposal that lets states decide whether to stick with Obamacare (including the Medicaid expansion) or move in a more conservative direction. This might have been enticing to some blue-state governors and Members of Congress back when it looked like Republicans had the means to enact something far more draconian. But at the moment it would look like a betrayal of Democratic constituencies in red states.

What might happen instead is that Republicans, freed from the responsibility of actually enacting anything, which their trifecta and the budget reconciliation made possible, will retreat to proposing impracticable health-care legislation they know Democrats won’t support and can easily filibuster. It will be just like Obama is still president and Republicans could demagogue on health care to their hearts’ desire!

In the short term, Republicans will have to deal with some immediate challenges exacerbated by this fiasco, like the need to satisfy their anti-abortion constituents by “defunding” Planned Parenthood, pursuing a tax-cut package without the improved revenue “baseline” that AHCA would have provided, and finding a new vehicle for “reforming” Medicaid (i.e., capping federal expenditures).

From a longer perspective, Republicans now understand how Democrats felt when the Clinton Health Plan went down to defeat in 1994. If it takes them half as long as it took Democrats to take another swing for the fences on health-care policy, we won’t soon see any vindication of the doomed effort that died today.

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.