DOMEocracy

hardline political news and analysis

Month: April, 2017

Impeach Trump?

What would be an appropriate response to a decision by the President of the United States to inflict deliberate harm on tens of millions of Americans? The question may seem far-fetched, even extreme, but depending on a decision by President Trump, it might well become one that Democrats in Congress must answer.

Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government is supposed to make $7 billion available to subsidize health insurance premiums for millions of low-income Americans. While Republicans have sued to prevent the payments – itself a startling decision from a Party that had railed about fictitious “death panels” – the law stands, and under the Constitution, the Executive Branch has a clear responsibility to ensure that the laws are enforced. Even some key Republican lawmakers, like Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) are demanding that Congress provide the funding for the premium supports.

Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, which is presided over by Secretary Tom Price (himself a physician and obdurate opponent of ACA), issued a statement that the subsidies would be paid in conformity with the law. An “incensed” Trump reportedly ordered HHS to reverse its position, asserting that he wants to use the subsidies to force Senate and House leaders Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to negotiate weakening the ACA. “I don’t want people to get hurt,” Trump professes, although he acknowledged he was willing to inflict the pain unless Democrats subvert the proudest achievement of their legislative careers.

It is a brutal and startling intimidation unsuited to any President: holding a gun to the heads of millions of low income Americans, threatening to pull the trigger unless Democrats agree to undermine their constituents’ health security.

It also may be unconstitutional. Like all presidents, Trump swore an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution,” a document which charges the President with enforcing the laws, regardless whether he embraces them. All presidents choose to selectively enforce laws. (Barack Obama, it will be remembered, declined to defend in court the Defense of Marriage Act, a law he believed was unconstitutional, but he did not refuse to enforce it until the Supreme Court agreed with his interpretation of its unsuitability).

Moreover, the 14th amendment requires equal protection of the law, and a decision to “hurt” millions of Americans based on their income (and disproportionately, on their race and ethnicity) surely violates this fundamental guarantee.

I am not one to blithely throw around the idea of filing impeachment resolutions. Richard Nixon richly deserved to be run out of office on a rail for manipulating the FBI and Justice Department to cover up his involvement in Watergate, but other cases have been little more than thinly veiled political retribution. The decision in 1868 to impeach Andrew Johnson was based on his violation of the Tenure of Office Act, one of the lesser of his many political offenses. Bill Clinton pretty clearly lied about his involvement with Monica Lewinsky, but few agreed it merited removal. Public demand for impeachment has wisely been resisted by congressional leaders. George W. Bush invaded Iraq on erroneous data which many observers knew was inconclusive, leading some to demand his removal, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi wisely steered her Caucus away from an ugly and unwinnable constitutional battle and towards a victorious 2006 electoral campaign.

Impeaching Trump became an obsession with some hardline opponents even before he took office based on the sheer ugliness of his campaign rhetoric and cynical strategy, both deplorable but not sufficient grounds for triggering Congress to initiate the removal procedure. The pre-Inaugural passion to remove Trump from the Oval Office reminded me of the “Impeach Reagan” pin a friend wore in his lapel on Election Night, 1980, a remnant from a failed gubernatorial removal effort.

But should he follow through on his threat to willfully impose financial hardship and medical jeopardy in defiance of the law, Trump may cross the line. That he would do so to seek political leverage makes his threat even more vile. Should he follow through and undermine the health security of millions of Americans, Congress would have more than sufficient grounds to debate removing him from office.

Harvard Law School’s constitutional law professor Noah Feldman recently pointed out that presidents need not actually break a law to commit “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the constitutional standard for removal from office. The president’s actions “don’t have to be actual crimes that are on the statute books at all,” Professor Feldman argues. “Abuse of power is anything the president does that he can only do by virtue of being president that threatens the basic freedoms and capacities of other people … actions performed in an official capacity … that violate the basic principles of the government.” Refusal to follow a law, upheld by the Supreme Court, so as to cause ill-health, suffering and death to citizens would, in most peoples’ book, meet the professor’s standard for “abuse of power.”

There is obvious political gain and risk from moving in such a confrontational direction. On the upside, motions of impeachment would energize much of the Democratic base that would just as happily impeach Trump for the ridiculous color of his improbable comb-over. Resolutions would focus attention on the impact of Trump’s heinous action and likely energize portions of the base impacted by such a decision. On the downside, many Republicans would cry foul and the country would be thrown into a furious round of the partisan confrontation that exasperates much of the electorate.

On balance, the fight would be worth strongly considering should Trump withhold the payments. The Affordable Care Act has never been more popular; Congress and Trump tried, and failed, to weaken it within the legislative process. It would therefore be highly presumptuous – perhaps even impeachable – for the President to exercise his Executive powers to subvert the law and endanger the health and welfare of millions of his fellow countrymen. Democrats would be fighting on a matter of constitutional principle and on behalf of Americans whose security has been undermined by the intentional misuse of presidential authority. That much seems unimpeachable.

 

 

Mini-DOMEocracy: Trump and Truthiness

Donald Trump is simply incapable of telling the truth or accepting responsibility.

Democrats were to blame for the failure of the Republican bill to gut the Affordable Care Act. The press is to blame for the steady leaks on the Trump-Russia connections. And now, a “lousy process” is to blame for the large number of Executive Branch vacancies.

“I am waiting right now for so many people,” Trump says. “Hundreds and hundreds of people. And then they’ll [NOTE: not sure who “they” references] say why isn’t Trump doing this faster?’ You can’t do it faster because they’re [NOTE: see earlier “note”] obstructing. They’re [NOTE: once again…] obstructionists… I have people, hundreds of people, that we’re trying to get through. I mean, you see the backlog. Can’t get them through.”

So, the implication is that the Senate, or those nasty Democrats, are holding up hundreds of appointments to sub-Cabinet posts; you know, like Mitch McConnell actually did to obstruct Obama appointments. Except, according to Politico,

“Contrary to Trump’s claim that he has ‘hundreds and hundreds of people’ awaiting confirmation, the White House had, as of April 7, put forward just 24 nominations for the 533 key posts that require Senate approval. Of those 24 nominees, 22 have been confirmed.”

I guess “they” should do better fact-checking before casting blame.

What a Week This Was!

Syria. Gorsuch. Filibuster. Job report. Nunes. China visit. Russia. Health Care. Bannon and NSC. Kushner diplomat extraordinaire. Unquestionably, the first week in April has been the most consequential for the still struggling Trump Administration. The thrashing about is occurring not only within the troubled White House itself, riven with rivalries, but between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue which continue to cautiously define their relationship.

Trump’s decision on Thursday night to launch a missile attack on Syria’s Al Shayrat airfield was the President’s first effort to demonstrate his willingness to flex American military muscle and was significant in a number of ways. The 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles that constituted Trump’s response to President Assad’s despicable chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun elevated his profile by demonstrating he was willing to shoot off something other than his mouth in response to Syrian (and Russian) provocation. Whether the attack reflects a new policy towards the Syrian civil war, or was merely a one-off retribution strike for Assad’s slaughter of innocents, remains to be seen.

Less uncertain are the impacts in terms of relationships with both Russia and Capitol Hill. Apparently the Russians were informed prior to the missile launchings which allowed them to move their military personnel at Al Shayrat out of harm’s way, although it seems unlikely the early alert will assuage Putin for the assault on Assad, his Syrian ally. One question still to be answered is whether congressional leaders were also given advance notice of the missile attack. Without any knowledge on the subject, I would bet calls went out to the Big Five (Speaker, Majority and Minority Leaders in both the Senate and House), as was the case before President Obama launched the attacks in Libya in 2011, which is one reason why there was a muted response from potential congressional critics.

But it did not take long for Sen. Rand Paul and others to question why the President did not seek congressional approval prior to initiating a major offensive military action, especially since Trump had criticized Obama for not seeking specific authorization before intervening in North Africa. Now ensconced in the West Wing, Trump instead fell back on Obama’s rationale, that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that Congress approved long ago concerning Afghanistan and Iraq essentially permits presidentially approved offensive military action anywhere in a very wide region that was not contemplated when the AUMF was passed.

Congress approved the War Powers Resolution in 1973 on a bipartisan basis to check the ability of trigger-happy presidents to insinuate the United States into protracted international conflicts without the requisite approval from Congress, which was granted war-making authority by the Constitution. Previously, White Houses of both parties have shot first and alerted Congress later, when it was necessary to seek funds to perpetuate the conflict initiated on a unilateral basis. Unwilling to leave American forces in harm’s way without needed weaponry or pay, compliant Congresses regularly get snookered into ratifying the President’s decision even when they disapproved of the initial commitment of U.S. forces. Frequently, for example, Nancy Pelosi had to cajole her distrustful Democrats to fund George W. Bush’s Iraq war, which she detested, provoking unrelenting criticism from militant demonstrators outside her San Francisco home.

Closer to home, tensions within the White House continued as personnel drama played out at the highest levels. Of greatest interest are reports that the two most powerful Trump aides, Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon, are at loggerheads. Kushner’s secret trip to Iraq, coming on the heels of his elevated role in coordinating government reform, negotiating a Mid-East Peace Agreement, and who knows what else, all are raising eyebrows in Congress and among ethics experts who note the acrid whiff of nepotism drifting through the White House. Many are justifiably alarmed at the power vested in a wholly inexperienced and unvetted neophyte who has never revealed potential conflicts of interest or been the subject of congressional confirmation. There is a reason that individuals who have the weighty portfolio being thrust upon Kushner must first be subjected to careful and public scrutiny, and one would think that Trump would want the same for his son-in-law if, for no other reason, than to diminish the possibility of a huge embarrassment at some crucial time in the future. (Of course, Bannon and National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster also hold their positions without benefit of congressional approval.)

A third development, with potentially significant long-term consequences, was the decision of Senate Republicans to alter the historic rule requiring 60 votes to take up a Supreme Court nominee, and the subsequent confirmation of Neil Gorsuch with just 54 votes, including two Democrats. Republicans pointed to former Majority Harry Reid’s decision to employ the nuclear option and eliminate the filibuster in 2013, a decision that applied to Cabinet and lower judicial nominees, but not to the Supreme Court or to legislative matters. Reid had long voiced his exasperation during leadership meetings with President Obama over his inability to confirm not only judicial nominees but also lower level Cabinet positions going back to the Clinton Administration because Minority Leader Mitch McConnell employed the 60 vote rule, often for reasons wholly unrelated to the qualifications or ideology of the prospective appointee. (In one case, at least, a senator held up a nomination for many months because he had not received a timely response to a letter to a Cabinet member.)

During those meetings (which I often attended), McConnell was a picture of taciturn indifference to Reid’s fulminations, resting on Senate tradition to justify use of the filibuster. Not surprisingly, upon gaining the majority in 2015, McConnell was happy to keep the Reid rule in place (as did Democrats in 1891 when they preserved the reforms that GOP Speaker Thomas Reed had unilaterally implemented to facilitate the operations of the House). There is a difference, of course: McConnell was holding up hundreds of appointments for reasons unrelated to the nominee, whereas Senate Democrats were objecting to one person’s appointment, based on Gorsuch’s extreme originalism and the Republican majority’s unprecedented refusal to grant Obama nominee Merrick Garland a hearing, let alone a vote. No matter, once a rule is violated, it is very difficult to restore it, and the Senate Democrats could hardly have been surprised. The resulting fury is more likely to affect the few Democrats who voted for GOP rules changes and Gorsuch, even though their votes in each case had no impact on the outcome.

One can hardly conclude a review of the week’s news without mentioning the spectacular flare-out of the bumbling, ham-fisted disaster that is Devin Nunes. His willingness to prostrate himself before the White House on the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 election was embarrassing to Democrats and Republicans alike, and his sharing of classified information about the probe with the President – information Trump could easily have acquired without the clandestine, midnight maneuvers of Nunes – sealed his fate as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Not only did he humiliate his fellow Republicans and provide Democrats with a new poster child of obsequiousness to Trump, but he crossed a line in kow-towing to the Executive Branch, a violation of separation of powers that was bound to cause anxiety among anyone concerned about the integrity and independence of the Legislative Branch.

A week of enormous consequence and continued turbulence on the Hill, in the White, and between the branches. And there is little reason to believe things will calm down anytime soon.

The Tax “Reform” Circus Comes to Town

Having placed pennies on the eyes of the stillborn American Health Care Act, Team Trump is now pivoting towards the more promising legislative goal of tax legislation. Not necessarily tax reform, which would imply restructuring tax obligations to ensure the ultra-affluent pay their fair share, but rather tax shifting to let the wealthy and corporations keep more of their money. When you hear Republicans say “tax reform,” there’s one thing you can be certain is coming (although never mentioned), and that is higher deficits.

Health care was a sideshow, needed in order to achieve a massive tax cut for the richest Americans that would help to finance the tax bill. Rest assured however: the circus that is coming to town is all about cutting taxes for the rich, and the deficit be damned.

The preliminary maneuvering suggests that legislating tax policy might be as rocky a road as the demolition derby that was health care “reform.” The key to any tax bill is the distributional curve: who gets more, and at what cost. As with the Reagan and George W. Bush cuts, the huge middle class would certainly secure some mild reductions in their tax bill, which pushes the cost of any such bill into the stratosphere. But the bulk of the benefits would go to the small elite of millionaires and billionaires who populate the world of Trump, Ryan and the Republican majority (as well as the Cabinet and White House staff).

If Democrats can’t figure out how to turn the tax debate into a messaging and electoral coup, they should hang up the spurs. The key is to keep it simple. The disproportionate amount of tax relief going to the wealthy affords Democrats a priceless opportunity to tarnish any claim that Republicans or Trump have (which is admittedly only a cynical one) to being a leader for the “little guy.” If anyone in the white working class missed the message of TrumpCare (“you lose your health guarantees while rich folks get a big tax cut”), the missive from the tax bill should be even clearer: “we are going to shower money on the richest Americans, run up a massive deficit, as Republicans always do, and then use the deficit to justify massive reductions in domestic programs that benefit low-income, job-deprived , undereducated Americans.”

This syndrome has been going on for over 30 years, since Ronald Reagan figured out it was easier to eviscerate domestic programs he disliked by pleading poverty born of tax policy he had perpetrated. Instead of denouncing popular New Deal and Great Society programs, as Barry Goldwater had learned was electorally perilous, Reagan generally sidestepped condemning them but created a deficit that “compelled” him to reduce domestic spending, a strategy later acknowledged by Budget Director David Stockman. There is a reason the biggest deficits are created during Republican presidencies, after all: the so-called fiscal conservatives cut tax and revenues, decline to pay for these cuts through comparable spending reductions or the reform of entitlements, and then wail about the rising deficits that can only be reduced (not really) by slashing tiny domestic discretionary spending (excluding military spending) that has already grievously suffered due to sequestration.

As the highly respected (though admittedly left-leaning) Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported in 2013, “Bush tax cuts are likely to continue be a major driver of federal budget deficits 20 years after they were first passed” despite efforts by President Obama and congressional Democrats to rein them in. In addition, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service concluded that Bush cuts “helped widen income inequality in the 2000s.” Nearly three quarters of the Bush tax cuts in the early 2000’s went to the top 10% of taxpayers (and 30% to the top 1%!), while the lower 60% of taxpayers received just 12% of the benefits. Little wonder that the 2009 deficit for fiscal year 2009, that greeted Barack Obama, was $1.4 trillion, the largest deficit relative to the economy since the end of World War II. Add in Bush’s other unpaid-for spending including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Part D Medicaid Expansion, and the damage caused by a failure to regulate the housing and financial services markets, and the responsibility shifts decisively from Democrats – who opposed all these decisions – to the conservatives fiscal “hawks.”

It certainly does not help that the tax debate will occur in the aftermath of both the health care implosion and the release of President Trump’s budget, which was so appallingly targeted against lower income Americans that even many conservatives have shied away from embracing it. No feature more illuminated the Dickensian motives behind this malevolent blueprint than the decision to zero out funding for the Meals on Wheels program. OK, I get it; you want to get rid of programs that “waste” taxpayer dollars. But really, starving a program that provides hot, nutritious meals to disabled, homebound elderly people, and are typically operated by charities (often churches): where is the message in such mean-spiritedness? Sure, toss in the assaults on the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Institute for Health – all that money that doesn’t add up to squat in a nearly $4 trillion budget. (And you can throw in ending heating aid to freezing Trump voters in the upper Mid-West.)

It remains to be seen if the Congress will have much appetite for such proposals that appear to defy the most elementary principles of politics. Sure, conservatives want to cut spending, but even most of them want to remain in office (check out how many have renounced their self-imposed term limits once they got used to their 18 person staffs and being the belle of the ball in their districts). Trump’s bizarre (sorry, there is no other words for it) strategy is to publicly browbeat the Breitbart crowd, growling “The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!”

With plans, policies and strategies like these, the federal deficit isn’t the only thing that is going to grow like a beanstalk in the years to come. Trump’s deficit in approval ratings is so profound that it may well be only a matter of time before Republicans on the Hill abandon any pretense of being on the Trump team and do what politicians generally do: worry about their own seat before they worry about yours.