Friday Talking Points -- Rogue Elephants!

As time goes by, more and more elephants in Washington seem to be going rogue. By this, we mean that resistance to Donald Trump is growing... within the Republican Party. Just last week, three GOP senators (Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and John McCain) denied Trump his sought-after "repeal and replace Obamacare" bill. Senator David Perdue from Georgia summed it up as: "We had three chairmen who went rogue on the Republican caucus and cost us this vote." Since then, other elephants have been going rogue at an increasing rate.

Before the week even began, Congress had passed with a near-unanimous vote (419-3 in the House, 98-2 in the Senate) the first piece of major legislation since Trump became president. It strips power away from Trump, though, so it's not exactly something he's going to be bragging about. While levying further sanctions on Russia, North Korea, and Iran, it also restricts Trump's ability to remove any sanctions from Russia -- a clear message from almost every Republican in Congress that Trump simply cannot be trusted to handle foreign policy when it comes to Russia. That's a pretty big slap in Trump's face, but Trump had to sign it -- or see his first veto overwhelmingly overturned by Congress. Trump didn't hold a camera-ready signing ceremony, and put out two petulant signing statements. Congressional Republicans immediately pushed back on the position Trump took in his signing statements. All around, not what Trump really wanted his first big bill-signing to be.

Trump tried to browbeat (browtweet?) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell into wasting even more time on the failed healthcare bill push, and McConnell politely ignored him and said the Senate was moving on to other things. Chuck Schumer reported that no fewer than ten Republicans had indicated to him that they'd be willing to work on a bipartisan effort to mend (rather than end) Obamacare, and over in the House a group of 43 members from both parties put forth a plan to do precisely that. So it looks like "repeal and replace" is dead, and the rogues are already working with Democrats on a sane alternative.

At the end of the week, the Senate began their August vacation, but before doing so unanimously consented that the break wouldn't technically be a "recess," and that the Senate would be gaveled into session every three days (and then immediately gaveled back out of session). This is to prevent Trump from using his recess appointment power to get rid of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replace him without Senate confirmation. The chair of the committee that would have to vet any Sessions replacement issued a statement that he would not be scheduling any such hearings for the remainder of the year -- another clear shot across Trump's bow. Again -- not a single senator objected to staying in pro forma session during the August break, which sends a pretty clear message to the White House.

Before they left town, though, two bills were introduced in the Senate, both with bipartisan authors. Senators Thom Tillis and Chris Coons introduced one of these, and Lindsey Graham teamed up with Cory Booker to introduce the other. They vary slightly, but both bills would achieve the same purpose -- restricting Trump's ability to fire Special Prosecutor Bob Mueller, and putting a three-judge panel in control of deciding if there is any sufficient cause to fire Mueller. As with the sanctions bill, this is another big restriction of Trump's powers as president, as a direct result of Republicans deciding he cannot be trusted to do the right thing.

During all of this, several more damaging leaks emerged from the White House, signaling that newly-installed Chief of Staff John Kelly, an ex-Marine four-star general, has not successfully halted the unauthorized flow of information from the White House to the media. A whole flurry of leaks appeared which were designed to make National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster look bad. As well as a blow-by-blow account appearing in the press of Donald Trump on Air Force One, dictating his son Junior's response to the Russia collusion meeting. So the infighting continues apace, even with General Kelly at the helm.

The most jaw-dropping leaks of the week, of course, were the three transcripts that were made public. The first was published by Politico, of a Wall Street Journal interview with Trump which had taken place earlier in the week. The other two were transcripts of two calls Trump made just after being sworn in to office, to the heads of state of Mexico and Australia, which appeared in the Washington Post. All three of these transcripts show -- once again -- that Trump is not really any sort of "deal-maker" and only really excels at whining about how put-upon he perpetually is. As previously reported (and as previously denied by the White House), the Mexican call showed that Trump's dream of "making Mexico pay for the wall" is nothing short of a fantasy he conned his supporters into believing, and Trump got downright petulant with the Australian leader, who could not be talked into reneging on an agreement made with President Obama just so Trump could score some political points with his base. Trump, in both cases, tries his hand at bulldozing the other leader into doing what he wants, but he fails spectacularly both times. So much for being the king of the dealmakers, in other words. King of the whiny brats might be closer to the truth. While the Wall Street Journal transcript was leaked from journalists to journalists, the transcripts of the two phone calls had to have come from a high-ranking Republican in the White House who went rogue.

Even with this stampede of rogue elephants, one Republican stood out as the "roguest of the rogue." Because it seemed you couldn't turn a television to the news this week without seeing an interview with Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who is plugging his new book. He wrote the book as a clarion call to conservatives to, essentially, break with Donald Trump and the whole Trumpist movement. He was happy to tell anyone who asked precisely why he thought Trump was so dangerous to the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Our guess is we'll see him again on the Sunday morning shows this weekend.

Let's see, what else has been going on this week? The White House tried to stay on message this week, with even Trump reportedly bending over backwards to make a good impression on his new chief of staff. The only problem was that the message seemed to be "Xenophobia Week" all week long. Trump announced his support for a Senate bill (that likely has no chance of passing) which would slash America's legal immigration by half. So much for all that talk of "we love immigrants, but only when they're legal," eh?

Not content with whipping his base up against immigrants, Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department would be using civil rights resources to attack the scourge of colleges discriminating against white people. Sessions continues his dedication to taking America back to the '50s again -- the 1850s, that is.

In international news, Russia kicked out more than 700 U.S. diplomats in response to the sanctions bill, and Donald Trump still has yet to even address the issue. Nary a peep was tweeted, in other words. Not even when Vladimir Putin taunted Trump with his own tweet, ridiculing Trump for letting Congress strip power from him and calling it "humiliating."

The State Department, meanwhile, seems to be giving up on promoting democracy around the world, which has been a core U.S. foreign policy goal for at least the last 70 years or so.

And we'll end with two amusing notes. The reactions to the firing of Anthony "The Mooch" Scaramucci were widespread and highly amusing, although his 10-day tenure in the job was actually not the shortest of all time. Ronald Reagan had a communications director for only six days, because he had to hastily resign after it was revealed that he had participated in the Hitler Youth movement in Germany. The Mooch beat that by four whole days! But the funniest comment we read came from Dana Milbank at the Washington Post, who pointed out: "He wasn't officially supposed to start until Aug. 15, so his tenure, technically, was minus 16 days." Heh.

But the funniest tweet of the week came from Time editor Ryan Teague Beckwith, who reacted to the news that Special Counsel Bob Mueller had convened a grand jury in Washington to help with his investigation into Russia, collusion, and Trump's financial empire, by tweeting: "technically, it's not a grand jury but the grandest jury, the best you've ever seen, really nothing like it." OK, now that's funny!

Before we get to this week's awards, there are two things worth mentioning that we'll be keeping an eye on for the next month or so. First, Senator Bernie Sanders revealed his August break plans:

Sen. Bernie Sanders is ramping up his campaign for single-payer health care, starting with digital ads that ask voters to endorse his planned "Medicare for All" legislation ahead of the Senate's August recess. The six-figure buy, paid for by Sanders's 2018 Senate reelection campaign, will direct readers to his website, where they can sign on to his bill. That will tee up legislation that Sanders (I-Vt.) has promised, then delayed, since March -- a version of single-payer health care that, he hopes, will avoid some of the pitfalls that have made previous bills politically untenable. "We're tweaking the final points of the bill, and we're figuring out how we can mount a national campaign to bring people together."

Good news for everyone who wants to see single-payer on the table for discussion, in other words. White papers and bullet-point lists are fine and good, but drafting an actual bill is a much more serious effort, and should be applauded.

Secondly, in the wake of the success of the resistance to the GOP healthcare bills, a group has formed to fight the upcoming Republican effort to massively cut taxes for the wealthy and big business:

The goals of Not One Penny (as in, "not one penny in tax cuts for the rich") are laid out in a pledge on the campaign website. "The last thing we need is for the tax code to be even more rigged in favor of millionaires, billionaires, and corporate insiders," write organizers. "Even more tax breaks for the super rich will undermine our commitment to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and make it impossible to invest in the middle class."

That's a catchy name, we have to admit, and we wish them success in their endeavors. Check out their website if you're interested in what they're trying to accomplish.

We have two Honorable Mention awards to hand out, to Senators Cory Booker and Chris Coons. Both joined with a Republican counterpart to draft bills to remove the power to fire Bob Mueller from Donald Trump. It remains to be seen whether either of these bills will pass, but their mere existence sends a pretty powerful message to Trump: "Don't even think of firing Mueller -- you don't want to go there."

Senator Booker really deserves two Honorable Mention awards this week, because of another important bill he introduced:

On Wednesday, a bill in Congress will be introduced to legalize marijuana on the national level -- ending the decades long prohibition. The Marijuana Justice Act proposed by Sen. Cory Booker D-N.J. aims to, "retroactively expunge people who have been convicted of use and possession of marijuana," "[create] incentive[s] for states to change their laws, which will stop them from enforcing the law in an unjust manner," and "[give] communities devastated by marijuana laws will be able to apply for reinvestment funds, to help pay for community centers, public libraries, youth centers, and other infrastructure and social needs."

But the winners of this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week are the House Democrats who joined with Republicans to form the "Problem Solvers' Caucus" (another catchy name), a group of 43 representatives who had been meeting for three weeks, in anticipation of the Senate effort failing. They thus had a plan ready to go to stabilize the individual insurance market, which they unveiled Monday, after the weekend dust from the Senate failure had settled.

We have to say, that's pretty impressive. We have no idea how good their plan will be, but the fact that they were ready to go, right out of the gate, is pretty admirable. Just when Congress looked its most dysfunctional, they plonked a solid bipartisan plan on the table. That's incredibly good timing. Since Republicans alone weren't able to get anything passed, they were ready with a Plan B, crafted with Democratic support.

Now, some Democrats won't like the compromises contained within the plan. After all, "centrist" isn't a very popular term in either party, right now. But we don't see this as some sort of setback in the effort to fully reform the healthcare industry (as Bernie Sanders is attempting), this is instead merely a temporary fix which would solve a short-term problem in a timely manner. With the current makeup of Congress, it would be close to impossible for Democrats to pass Bernie's bill, in other words. The push for "Medicare for all" will have to bear fruit in getting more Democrats elected before it has the slightest chance of being seriously considered by either house -- it's much more of a long-term effort. So approving of a short-term fix isn't the same thing as betraying this long-term effort, at least not to us.

Obviously, this might not be the perfect bill and it might not solve every problem, but the Problem Solvers showed -- just when it was needed most -- that Democrats and Republicans can actually work together to try to fix what is broken when the problems are imminent. That is a positive sign, folks.

For the entire August break, Democrats will be able to point to this effort to show voters that Congress is actually capable of moving beyond partisan bickering and actually trying to address problems which actually exist in the real world. We have no idea what the chances of their effort will be in the end, but we have to salute them for making that effort, and for being ready to unveil it at a very crucial moment. Well done!

So every House Democrat in the Problem Solvers' Caucus is hereby awarded a Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week. Your timing was impeccable, and hopefully this caucus will stick together to help with other intractable issues where Republicans can't even agree among themselves what to do (of which there will be many, for the rest of this year at least).

[There are simply too many Democrats in the Problem Solvers' Caucus to list individually, but you can use their Facebook page to let them know you appreciate their efforts.]

This one's pretty easy this week, although it could be argued that awarding it breaks our own criteria for such awards. But we're ignoring such petty distractions and handing the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week to West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, who just announced (at a Trump rally, no less) that he's changing his registration and becoming a Republican.

The technicality, of course, is that he's now a Republican so how can he qualify for a Democratic award? But we're ruling that since he was a Democrat for most of the past week, he's still eligible.

Now, this party poaching isn't as surprising as it might first appear. After all, Justice was a Republican up until 2015, so it's not like he had previously made a lifelong commitment to the Democrats. West Virginia has shifted from being reliably Democratic (with lots of Union members voting) to being a Republican stronghold over the past few decades, so it really isn't all that shocking.

Even so, his switch means that Republicans now control a historic amount of governorships across the country, and the bad news for Democrats doesn't even end there. As of now, there are 26 states where the GOP controls the governor's mansion and both chambers of the statehouse. The corresponding number for Democrats is six. That's beyond disappointing, really.

Which is why our choice was pretty obvious. For leaving the party and crossing the aisle, ex-Democrat Jim Justice of West Virginia is our Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week.

[Contact West Virginia Governor Jim Justice on his official contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions.]

Volume 448 (8/4/17)

We have to start off with a program note today, because this column will not be appearing next week. We'll be off to the annual Netroots Nation conference of progressive bloggers, and so will be unable to devote the time to putting together a Friday column. This column will return in two weeks' time, on August 18. After all, if Congress and Donald Trump can scarper off on vacation, why can't we have a little time off, too?

There's no overarching theme to this week's talking points. As always, use them responsibly, and we'll see you back here in two weeks!

Some justice

This first one is pure schadenfreude, we'll cheerfully admit.

"Did you see that ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio was convicted this week of contempt of court? I guess there's still some justice left in the universe. No word yet on whether he'll have to serve his sentence in an open-air jail in 100-plus-degree heat, as he forced so many prisoners to do. Or, for that matter, whether he'll get a pink jail outfit to wear. Because that would really be the most appropriate sentence."


This one is pretty funny, we have to admit.

"Seems that a bunch of White House staffers got punked via email over the past few weeks, including the outgoing Anthony 'The Mooch' Scaramucci. But the most shocking revelation was that the guy supposedly in charge of cybersecurity voluntarily offered up his private email address in response to getting punked. Boy, that really fills you with confidence that the White House is cybersecure, eh?"

Et tu, Rasmussen?

Trump's favorite poll had some bad news for him this week.

"Donald Trump loves to cite numbers from Rasmussen whenever he talks about his polling. This is because Rasmussen regularly reports numbers tilted heavily towards Republicans, at least when compared with every other poll in existence. So it must have been somewhat of a blow this week when Rasmussen reported that Trump's job approval rating had sunk to a dismal 38 percent. Remember -- Rasmussen's numbers are normally at least five points above the consensus of other pollsters, so this is really bad news for Trump. As Trump might put it: Sad!"

Scouts' honor

Trump just can't help himself, it appears.

"In that stunning Wall Street Journal interview transcript, Trump just could not resist the urge to reach around and give himself a big pat on the back. He said that, after he gave a wildly inappropriate speech to the Boy Scouts, the head of the Boy Scouts called him up to tell him it was the 'best speech ever given' to the Boy Scouts. Only, as it turned out, this call never actually happened. You have to wonder at this casual disregard for the truth from our president -- I mean, is he just lying? Or is he actually hearing voices in his head which do not exist? This has now happened too many times to ignore, when you think about it."

Sarah would be proud

Seriously, read the transcripts for yourself (Wall Street Journal interview or the two phone calls).

"Donald Trump, to his supporters, is a financial genius and the best dealmaker who ever trod the Earth. But I would challenge anyone who thinks 'Of course he's smart, he's rich, isn't he?' to read one of the three transcripts which were made public this week. Trump's rambling responses are nothing more than word salad, for the most part. They are downright Sarah-Palinesque, really. Trump's narcissism is on full display, and his obsession with certain topics is undeniable. In the phone calls to the Mexican and Australian leaders, he attempts some dealmaking and utterly fails. In both cases, he shows a basic lack of understanding of the other man's political position, which isn't all that surprising since the only thing Trump cares about is his own political position. This is crystal clear in the transcripts, and it's almost painful to read how both world leaders have to explain that their jobs in no way have anything to do with 'making Donald Trump look good.' Trump doesn't even attempt to strike any kind of deal -- he just tries to strongarm the other guy into saying or doing something that would help Trump. Neither one budges an inch, needless to say. Trump a genius dealmaker? Read those transcripts and then tell me that, and I'll laugh in your face."

Well, that makes me feel better

Never fear, Trump has the situation in hand.

"Donald Trump, at a recent cabinet meeting, answered a question about what he was going to do about the crisis with North Korea. Here is his full, unedited answer: 'We'll handle North Korea. We're going to be able to handle North -- there will be -- it will be handled. We handle everything.' Oh, thank you for that, Mister President. I feel so much more confident now, knowing that you'll 'handle' North Korea... somehow."


It's not just Congress that is fleeing D.C. for the rest of the summer.

"Donald Trump will be taking a 17-day vacation for the next few weeks. I guess he hasn't been getting in enough golf, or something. I remember when Trump used to loudly complain about President Obama taking vacations or golfing, but so far he's been on the links far more than Obama ever was. In fact, Newsweek pointed this out on their cover this week: 'SIX months in office, 40 days at golf clubs, ZERO pieces of major legislation.' The big title on the cover? 'LAZY BOY -- Donald Trump is bored and tired. Imagine how bad he'd feel if he did any work.' Ouch. That's gotta hurt."

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