It wasn’t the politics of health care that did in Trumpcare. It was the substance.

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer earlier this year. Photo (cc) 2017 by Lorie Scholl.

I find myself frustrated at the tone of much of the commentary following the humiliating withdrawal of the Trump-Ryan health-care bill Friday. I could find a bunch of stuff to link to, but we’ve all seen it. It’s all about winning. So much winning. And if the bill had been approved, most commentators would be hailing President Trump for his big victory.

Yes, Trump got the politics wrong. But of far greater significance is that he and House Speaker Paul Ryan got the substance wrong. There was nothing in their legislation other than a chest-thumping assertion that Obamacare is dead — and that we’re going to screw the poor, help the rich, and dismantle much of what was accomplished by the Affordable Care Act.

The two groups that defeated the legislation did so on principled grounds: Democrats and moderate Republicans who wanted Obamacare to remain entirely or mostly intact; and the House Freedom Caucus, whose extremist members don’t want any government involvement in health care whatsoever. On the other side, those who supported Trumpcare couldn’t point to a single provision that would have improved anyone’s lives other than the wealthy people who’d get a tax cut.

After the defeat, Trump blamed House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer. He’s right — it’s on them. And we should thank them for saving the most important piece of social legislation since Medicare was approved in the 1960s. And these folks, too:

Any major new program needs technical fixes along the way. Unfortunately, after Obamacare was approved, congressional Republicans refused to consider any such legislation. That, along with attempts by many Republican governors to undermine it in their states, is responsible for the ACA’s not working as well as it should.

On Friday, the ACA was saved. It now must withstand at least two years of Republican attempts to starve it of funds. But as Jonathan Chait of New York magazine points out, it’s not likely to be repealed after the debacle of this week. Trump and congressional Republicans won’t be in power forever. At some point, we’ll have an opportunity to get this right.

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ProPublica: Prosecutor was investigating Trump official at the time that he was fired

Preet Bharara in 2015. Photo (cc) by the Financial Times.

Preet Bharara was investigating Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price for possible insider stock trading at the time that Bharara was fired as U.S. attorney, according to a report by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.

Recently, President Trump demanded the resignations of 46 Obama-era U.S. attorneys who had not yet departed. Although Trump’s move was not unprecedented, it was unusual. The last time a president removed his predecessor’s prosecutors en masse was Bill Clinton in 1993.

Bharara was fired after he refused to resign. His departure was the subject of some controversy, as Trump had apparently assured him he could stay. Now it looks like Trump may have ordered all 46 to leave at once to provide cover so that he could shut down Bharara’s investigation of Price.

I’m uncomfortable with ProPublica’s apparent reliance on one anonymous source. But ProPublica is the gold standard when it comes to investigative reporting, and so I’m going to assume that the person who provided the information (Cough! Bharara!) was truly in a position to know and provided some documentation. This is not a story that ProPublica would risk having to retract.

So let’s keep this in proportion, OK? If this were any other president, we would be talking about a scandal of epic proportions. If this were President Hillary Clinton, well, good God — the subpoenas would be flying by this afternoon. Don’t let all the other stuff going on distract you into thinking this isn’t a big deal. It is a very big deal. Or at least it should be.

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Why is Ryan happy with the CBO report while Trumpsters are calling it ‘absurd’?

Paul Ryan. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

This is truly one of the more bizarre after-effects of the Congressional Budget Office report that 24 million people will lose their health insurance if Obamacare is repealed and replaced: House Speaker Paul Ryan is very happy, saying that’s exactly what he intended, because, you know, freedom. But the Trump White House is denigrating the CBO, saying its numbers make no sense.

From The Washington Post:

Declaring that the plans would usher in “the most fundamental entitlement reform in a generation,” Ryan said the legislation “is about giving people more choices and better access to a plan they want and can afford. When people have more choices, costs go down. That’s what this report shows.”

And:

“Just absurd,” was the way Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, responded to the forecast, while Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said, “The CBO report’s coverage numbers defy logic.”

What this comes down to, of course, is who promised what. Ryan and his fellow Republicans have always promised needless pain and suffering (freedom!), and the alternative they’ve drafted to Obamacare would give people exactly that. Indeed, the CBO report is actually good news for Ryan, since it may impress Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul, who has complained that the Ryan plan doesn’t go far enough in returning us to John Locke’s state of nature.

President Trump, by contrast, promised repeatedly to replace Obamacare with something bigger and better. “We’re going to have insurance for everybody,” he said at one point. “There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us.”

As ABC News’ “The Note” puts it: “There are tensions everywhere — between what Ryan has long planned, what tea partiers and outside conservative groups have yearned for, and, critically, what President Trump promised.”

There is a perception among some that, unpopular though Trump may be (and he is), he’s nevertheless fulfilling his promises. For instance, Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam writes:

This isn’t the world I would choose to live in, but it’s a world we may need to get used to. I can’t see any evidence that Trump has done anything other than deliver on almost every one of his hateful campaign promises. Sure the central press hates him, and is working long hours to bring him down, but they hated him well before he was elected, and it affected the election barely a whit.

In fact, repealing Obamacare and replacing it with anything like the Ryan plan would amount to a massive breach of one of Trump’s key promises, and it would harm his voters more than most Americans. Yet Trump and his minions appear to be paving the way for passage of the Ryan plan — let’s call it Trumpcare! — by deriding the CBO report as “fake news.” Unfortunately, it will actually accomplish exactly what Ryan is aiming for, which is to undermine the entire notion that government can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.

Re-reading Anthony Lewis’ ode to the First Amendment in the age of Trump

We are at a frightening moment. To refresh my understanding of what the First Amendment truly means, I recently re-read Anthony Lewis’ magnificent 2007 book “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment.” I’m glad I did. The late New York Times columnist, who was married to former Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court chief justice Margaret Marshall, was a giant in his understanding of and reverence for the right to speak and write freely.

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As the media swoon over the new, improved Trump, a few facts to keep in mind

Just a few quick observations I hope you’ll keep in mind as the media go into full swoon over President Trump’s address to Congress Tuesday night.

  • Trump’s denunciation of anti-Semitic attacks and other hate crimes was welcome and long overdue. But any media outlet that doesn’t point out that Trump seemed to blame those incidents on the Jews just a day earlier (a favorite theme of David Duke’s, by the way) is doing you a disservice.
  • In calm, statesmanlike tones, Trump once again whipped up fear and hatred against immigrants, this time by promising to establish a registry to call attention to crimes by undocumented residents. Never mind that the data show they are less likely to commit crimes than non-immigrants. As Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe tweeted:

  • The most genuinely moving moment of the night came when Trump recognized Carryn Owens, the widow of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, who was killed in Yemen recently. CNN’s Van Jones was so impressed that he said, “He became President of the United States in that moment, period.” I won’t question Trump’s sincerity. But don’t forget that Owens was killed in a botched, hastily approved raid criticized by, among others, Sen. John McCain, and that Owens’ father is so angry with the president that he refused to meet with him. In other words, there’s a lot more to this than met the eye of viewers who were tuning in last night.

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Christopher Caldwell ignores disturbing evidence of Bannon’s bigoted views

Stephen Bannon at CPAC on Friday. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.
Stephen Bannon at CPAC on Friday. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.

Christopher Caldwell, a conservative writer whom I admire, weighs in with a sympathetic profile of Stephen Bannon in today’s New York Times in which he ignores available evidence that Bannon may personally hold racist and anti-Semitic views. (This would be aside from the garbage published by Breitbart News, the alt-right website Bannon headed before joining President Trump’s campaign last summer.) Caldwell writes:

Many accounts of Mr. Bannon paint him as a cartoon villain or internet troll come to life, as a bigot, an anti-Semite, a misogynist, a crypto-fascist. The former House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, have even called him a “white nationalist.” While he is certainly a hard-line conservative of some kind, the evidence that he is an extremist of a more troubling sort has generally been either massaged, misread or hyped up.

The trouble with Caldwell’s attempt to blow past the alleged caricature and tell us about the real Steve Bannon is that there is, in fact, well-known, on-the-record evidence that contradicts Caldwell’s sanguine views.

Perhaps Caldwell’s most disingenuous ploy is to enlist Julia Jones, a liberal screenwriter and former collaborator of Bannon’s. Caldwell writes: “She regrets that Mr. Bannon ‘has found a home in nationalism.’ But she does not believe he is any kind of anarchist, let alone a racist.”

Now, this is not the first time that Jones has been quoted in the Times to the effect that Bannon is not a racist. The last time, though, we got the full context, and it turns out that Jones’ view of what constitutes not being a racist is rather different from the standard definition. This is from a profile of Bannon by Scott Shane that the Times published on Nov. 27:

Ms. Jones, the film colleague, said that in their years working together, Mr. Bannon occasionally talked about the genetic superiority of some people and once mused about the desirability of limiting the vote to property owners.

“I said, ‘That would exclude a lot of African-Americans,’” Ms. Jones recalled. “He said, ‘Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.’ I said, ‘But what about Wendy?’” referring to Mr. Bannon’s executive assistant. “He said, ‘She’s different. She’s family.’”

I realize that this is hearsay. But it comes from a friendly source, and there hasn’t been a single suggestion since Shane’s story was published that either Jones or Bannon disputes the accuracy of that particular anecdote.

As for whether Bannon is an anti-Semite, well, it’s complicated. His chief ally within the White House is said to be Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who is Jewish. As Caldwell and others have noted, Bannon reserves his real animus for Muslims. Nevertheless, there is the matter of a sworn deposition by Bannon’s ex-wife, Mary Louise Piccard, in which she claims that Bannon assaulted her because he was upset that she was sending their daughters to a private school with too many Jews.

Jesse Singal, writing last Nov. 15 in New York magazine, did a good job of gathering together what we know about Bannon and the Jews. As Singal noted, Piccard’s statement did come in the midst of a nasty custody battle, and Bannon has denied ever saying such a thing. But it’s been confirmed that there was a domestic incident around that time. And it’s also been confirmed that Bannon once asked the director of a school “why there were so many Chanukah book in the library,” as Piccard put it. (What’s unclear is whether the question was friendly or hostile.)

A friendly source saying on the record that Bannon talked about the genetic superiority of some people and said it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if many African-Americans were banned from voting. Disturbing suggestions that Bannon has expressed anti-Semitic views. I would say these are more than “hyped up” charges, as Caldwell puts it. The fact that we are talking about President Trump’s right-hand man makes them pretty damn alarming.

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James Comey is back. And this time his FBI is taking aim at Trump’s inner circle.

James Comey. Photo (cc) 2016 by tua ulamac.
James Comey. Photo (cc) 2016 by tua ulamac.

FBI Director James Comey, who did more to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential campaign than anyone other than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, is back. Investigations are under way into the Trump inner circle’s ties to Russia — and leaks from those investigations are one of several factors in the chaos that has defined Trump’s presidency. As we all wonder what will come next, it’s a good time to take a look at what Comey has wrought.

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