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Comey Tells House Committee that Obama Didn't Tap Trump's Phone

FBI Director James Comey told the House Intelligence Committee yesterday that the FBI is looking into Trump-Russia collusion but he didn't have much to say about it now. He did have something to say about President Donald Trump's claim that Barack Obama tapped his phone during the campaign, namely that he has no evidence to support such a claim. This was the big story everywhere yesterday. Here are a few of the headlines, which are linked to the stories in each newspaper.

  • New York Times: F.B.I. Sees no evidence of Trump Wiretap
  • Washington Post: Comey says there is "no information" to support Trump's wiretapping claims
  • Boston Globe: No evidence on Trump wiretap, Comey says
  • L.A. Times: Comey: FBI and Justice Dept. have no information to support Trump's wiretap claim
  • USA Today: Comey: No evidence that Obama tapped Trump
  • New York Daily News: FBI has "no information" to support Trump's wiretap claims against Obama

The Washington Post has a list of six takeaways from yesterday's hearings, as follows:

  • There is no evidence that Obama tapped Trump's phones
  • The FBI is investigating the Russia-Trump connections
  • The FBI is going to be very tight-lipped about the investigation
  • The Democrats are convinced Trump's associates colluded with the Russians
  • Republicans want to focus on the leaks
  • Intelligence officials don't think the Russians manipulated vote totals

While there is no smoking gun here, there could be once the FBI concludes its investigation. Of course, the Justice Dept. might try to quash any such report, but it is unlikely to be successful if it tries.

Having today's hearings saturate the news is not great for Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), since their plan was to have the House pass the AHCA on Thursday, and these new developments push healthcare off the front pages and replace it with Russia and wiretapping. (V)

White House Goes Into Full Spin Mode

Unsurprisingly, the White House reacted strongly to James Comey's testimony. There was little good news for them on Monday, and so they launched an immediate counter-attack on all fronts.

Leading the charge, of course, was White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who issued forth with a blend of denial, redirection, and outright obfuscation. The denial took the form of downplaying the role of Russia-connected individuals in the Trump campaign. Specifically, he declared that Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort each had a "limited" role in Trump's run for office, both in terms of timespan and influence. This is flatly untrue, of course—in particular, the specific timeframes Spicer cited for the involvement of each man do not square with widely-available evidence, like news stories and interviews conducted by each man on behalf of the campaign.

In terms of redirection, Spicer worked very hard (aided by Republicans on The Hill) to focus attention not on Russian interference with the election, but on the leaks that led to Michael Flynn's resignation. In their telling, the Russian interference story is largely sour grapes coming from Democrats angry they lost the election, while the leaks speak to rogue elements within the government that threaten the very security of the republic. Again, full spin mode.

The obfuscation came when Spicer had to face the question that has no answer: What about the wiretapping? The President is committed to the notion that Barack Obama wiretapped him, and he rarely backs down on these sorts of things. Everyone else—Obama, Comey, the heads of the congressional intelligence committees—say it never happened. So, when Spicer was queried, he unveiled this masterpiece of bloviation:

What I'm getting at is that there's a lot of information that we have come to learn about what happened in terms of surveillance throughout the 2016 election and the transition. And when you look at somebody like Michael Flynn, and you realize that, while they might have been looking at somebody else at that time, how does somebody's name that's protected by law from being disclosed get put out in public? Why was it put out in the public? Because the people in the intelligence community would have had access to that information. They could have found out who it was. But yet, you've got to question, why was a name that should have been protected by law from being put out into the public domain, put out there? What were the motives behind that? What else do we need to know? Who was behind that kind of unmasking?

As the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza points out, this is actually a rambling, wordy attempt to again refocus the discussion on Michael Flynn and the leaks. What it isn't however, is anything close to an answer to the question. The White House is unwilling to explain exactly what evidence they have that everyone else does not, nor to reveal when they will be sharing that evidence. Which means, of course, that they do not have any evidence, and so they will not be sharing anything. Spicer can't say that, so instead he rambles.

As to the President himself, well, he had a public appearance scheduled on Monday—a rally, as he is wont to hold when he needs cheering up. This one was in Kentucky, and Trump had little to say about Monday's events. Beyond repeating his basic talking points about infrastructure, jobs, etc., his primary subject of interest was San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick, who attracted controversy last season when he refused to stand for the national anthem, is having trouble finding employment in the NFL. Trump was happy to take credit, telling the crowd that he knew "the people of Kentucky" would be delighted "because they like when people actually stand for the American flag."

Publicly, then, Trump behaved as if nothing interesting had happened in Washington on Monday. But, of course, there's always Twitter. And there, both the @realDonaldTrump and @POTUS accounts were running wild throughout the day. Many of the tweets were denials or redirections, most notably this one:

Of course, that is not what Comey or NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers said. Maybe Trump meant that no one has found evidence that the Russians changed the vote totals, but there are ways to influence an election other than hacking the vote totals and changing them.

Later, The Donald appeared to lay the groundwork for a new conspiracy theory:

What he is implying here, despite all evidence otherwise, is that Barack Obama may have been aware of Michael Flynn's contacts with the Russians, and so may have been the source of the leaks that—as noted above—are ostensibly "the real problem."

As we have noted before, this is all very Nixonian. And Nixon managed to parry the Watergate scandal for many months with spin and misdirection before things became untenable and his support collapsed. No one can know if Trump will follow the same trajectory, though we may get our answer when and if the FBI issues its final report on the matter. (Z & V)

NSA Director Complains that Trump is Undermining U.S. Alliances

While James Comey's testimony got most of the headlines, National Security Agency Director Admiral Michael Rogers also had some disturbing testimony. He said that Trump's loose talk is causing serious problems with key allies. First is the U.K., which is furious with Trump for claiming, with no evidence whatsoever, that the country's top spy agency helped wiretap Trump Tower during the election. British Prime Minister Theresa May has vigorously denied Trump's claim.

Second is Germany. When German Prime Minister Angela Merkel visited Trump last week, he said that he and Merkel had something in common: Obama wiretapped both of them. For Merkel, reminding people that the NSA did wiretap her is a huge embarrassment. She would have much preferred that he didn't bring up the subject. Bringing it up only reminds Germans why they don't like America.

The relationships with the U.K. and Germany are strong enough to withstand these tweets from Trump, but having things be so bad that the NSA director has to chastise the president in public is unprecedented. (V)

Trump Didn't Work on the Healthcare Bill During the Past Weekend

With a make-or-break vote in the House on the AHCA in two days, one might have expected Donald Trump to have been on the phone the entire weekend, calling recalcitrant House members and trying to get them to vote for the bill. Instead the bill was barely on his radar at all while he was at Mar-a-Lago. He got in some golf and asked people what they thought of North Korea and Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. Meanwhile, his aides were frantically working the phones trying to line up votes (see also below).

Trump doesn't seem to understand that the bill is not self-propelled and that there is a lot of opposition to it from conservatives. If he had personally called every member of the Freedom Caucus to ask for his vote, it might have won him some votes, but Trump's management style as president seems to be like his management style as a businessman: Focus on the big picture and let others do the real work. In this respect, Trump is like Ronald Reagan, and the direct opposite of micromanagers like Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, for whom no detail was too small to escape their attention. If the bill passes on Thursday, Paul Ryan will get the credit, but if it fails, a lot of Republicans will be asking where Trump was when they needed him. (V)

Ryan Scrounging Up Votes for AHCA One at a Time

While the Comey story was playing out all over the media, Paul Ryan was beating the bushes yesterday, going after a vote here and a vote there. One project involves an amendment from Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY), which would relieve counties of paying anything for Medicaid recipients living in them. Two New York Republicans, Rep. John Katko (R-NY) and Claudia Tenney (R-NY), can probably be bought off with that amendment, since it moves spending from their districts to the state as a whole. Tenney said: "This amendment will provide much needed relief to counties, local governments and the property taxpayers of Upstate New York." (English translation: If we can't get rid of Medicaid altogether, I would prefer someone other than my constituents pay for it.) Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D-NY) opposed the amendment, saying it would cost the state more money.

Late Monday, another group of adjustments was announced, almost all of them tailored to conservative members of Congress. One new amendment will allow states to force able-bodied Medicaid recipients to work, undergo job training, or do community service. Another will speed up the pace with which the tax penalties are abolished. A third would transform Medicaid payments from a per person basis to a block grant basis.

At this point, the strategy is clear. Paul Ryan is going to try to squeeze a bill through the House, compromising only as much as is absolutely necessary. Then, it will be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-KY) turn, and he will try to squeeze a bill through the Senate, one that—if it passes—will be much less conservative. Then, if both men are successful, there will be a reconciliation bill that halves the difference between the two versions, coupled with a "take it or leave it" ultimatum issued to the GOP members of Congress. Or, put another way, "It's Obamacare or this—your choice."

The problem, which this maneuvering seems unlikely to overcome, is that the American Health Care Act is incorrectly named. It has nothing to do with health care, in that it will not cause a single additional person to receive coverage, nor anyone with coverage already to receive better coverage. Instead, it is a tax cut for the wealthy, and no amount of insisting that the emperor is actually wearing clothes will change that fact. Polls make clear that voters are aware of this. For example, a recent YouGov survey reveals that the public opposes the bill by a 21-point margin (45% to 24%). More worrisome for the GOP is that only 5% strongly favor the bill, while 32% are strongly opposed. While those numbers will likely improve some, it's clear that the American public largely isn't buying what Paul Ryan is selling. And if the moderate members of the House and Senate see that this is the way the winds are blowing, no number of amendments is going to make them walk to the plank for the Speaker. (Z & V)

Neither the ACA nor the AHCA Tackle the Problem of Controlling Healthcare Costs

Both Democrats and Republicans agree that healthcare costs are completely out of hand, but they disagree on what to do about it. The U.S. spends twice as much per capita as any other country and gets worse results. The Democrats think that the government needs to closely regulate healthcare to keep costs downs. The Republicans think that individuals need to have more skin the game so they are more cost conscious when deciding on their medical care. Empirically, neither one works very well at keeping down costs.

An interesting article in the Washington Monthly sheds some light on the matter. As it turns out, 5% of the population accounts for 50% of healthcare spending and 20% of the population accounts for 80% of the spending. The medical consumers are largely old people but also some young people with chronic conditions. The article says that the real problem with the healthcare system is the "fee for service" model, which encourages all healthcare provides to offer and provide more service than is needed, much of it high tech and expensive. It cites several experiments with low-tech, high-touch models where non-doctors help old or chronic patients take their medicine properly and follow their doctors' instructions better, which keeps them living at home longer and out of hospitals. There is nothing in the AHCA along these lines, unfortunately. (V)

Gorsuch Makes Senate Debut

Donald Trump's SCOTUS nominee, Neil Gorsuch, appeared before the Senate for the first time on Monday, the first of four days he is scheduled to be examined. The nominee was largely denied the spotlight, however, in part due to James Comey, but also in part due to Merrick Garland.

Gorsuch certainly came prepared to say the right things; when he was able to get a word in edgewise (three hours into his appearance), he said, "Long before we are Republicans or Democrats—we are Americans." However, the members of the Senate were primarily interested in spending Monday arguing about the propriety of a year-long filibuster of Barack Obama's choice for the seat. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) blasted it as an "extraordinary blockade" and compared it to FDR's court-packing scheme of the 1930s. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) concurred, saying it, "is part of a Republican strategy to capture our judicial branch of government." Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) fired back, insisting that the election was a:

...referendum on the kind of justice that should replace Justice Scalia. Given the engagement of the electorate nationally on this central issue, I would suggest that Judge Gorsuch is no ordinary nominee. Because of this unique and transparent process—unprecedented in the nation's history—his nomination carries with it a super legitimacy. The American people played a very direct role in helping choose this nominee.

It takes a special kind of chutzpah to argue that an election in which only half the eligible voters showed up to vote, and the majority of those voted for some other party, gives some sort of historic mandate, but that's why he's a politician. In any case, presumably the Senators will get down to the job of actually vetting Gorsuch on Tuesday. (Z)

Trump Drops to No. 544 on List of Richest Americans

Forbes magazine has published its annual list of the richest Americans and Donald Trump doesn't even make it into the top 500. He is ranked No. 544, way down from No. 205 last year. The reason isn't political, but economic. Manhattan real estate is in a slump and much of Trump's net worth is in Manhattan buildings that are worth less than they were last year. The top three on the list are Bill Gates ($86B), Warren Buffett ($76B), and Jeff Bezos ($73B). Trump is estimated to be worth a measly $3.5 billion. Forbes says there are 2,043 billionaires in America now. (V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Mar20 Comey to Testify before House Committee Today
Mar20 Rand Paul Predicts the AHCA Will Fail to Pass Congress
Mar20 Ryan Is Betting the Farm on the AHCA Vote
Mar20 Joni Ernst Is Not Sure If She Will Vote for the AHCA
Mar20 Trump Has "Eyes and Ears" Installed at Every Cabinet Agency
Mar20 It's Not the Economy, Stupid
Mar20 Secretary of State Cannot Operate in Secrecy
Mar20 Trump Approval Rating Hits a New Low
Mar20 Meetup Wants to Organize Anti-Trump Resistance
Mar19 Goodbye RyanCare, Hello TrumpCare
Mar19 Muslim Ban Will Have Unintended Consequences
Mar19 Russian Company that Paid Flynn Was Deemed "Unsuitable" by the Pentagon
Mar19 Russians Have Invested $100 Million in Trump Buildings
Mar19 DHS Is Soliciting Proposals for a 30-Foot High Aesthetically Pleasing Wall
Mar19 Kellyane Conway's Husband Will Run the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division
Mar19 Gorsuch Is Not a Slam Dunk
Mar19 West Virginia Newspaper Slams Trump
Mar18 Collins Will Vote Against Healthcare Bill
Mar18 Trump and House Conservatives Agree on Key New Provisions to Healthcare Bill
Mar18 Healthcare Nomenclature Keeps Changing
Mar18 Freedom Caucus Looks to Bannon for Support
Mar18 What Has Trump Accomplished So Far?
Mar18 Trump Voters Among the Biggest Losers in the Trump Budget
Mar18 U.S. To Appeal Judge's Order on Muslim Ban v2.0
Mar17 Trump's Budget Hits Headwinds before the Ink Is Dry
Mar17 House Budget Committee Approves ACA Replacement
Mar17 Senate Intelligence Committee Also Finds No Evidence of Wiretapping
Mar17 Trump Sidelines the Grown-Ups
Mar17 Congressman Wants to Know if Trump Knew Flynn Took Russian Money
Mar16 Federal Judges Block Muslim Ban V2.0
Mar16 Lessons from the ACA Battles that Republicans Haven't Learned
Mar16 Healthcare Bill Is Needed to Make Tax-cut Bill Work
Mar16 Graham to Start Investigating Trump
Mar16 Nunes Says There is Zero Evidence that Trump's Phone Was Tapped
Mar16 List of Trump-Russia Connections Fills Up 118 Pages
Mar16 Paranoia Runs Rampant in the White House
Mar16 Dutch Voters: Populism? No Thanks
Mar15 Fifty Republicans Skeptical of Ryan's Healthcare Bill
Mar15 White House Analysis of Ryan's Healthcare Plan Foresees 26 Million Newly Uninsured
Mar15 Two More Pages of Trump Taxes Leak
Mar15 Sessions' Purge of the U.S. Attorneys Could Come Back to Haunt the Republicans
Mar15 Democrats' Unity in the Senate is Holding
Mar15 Is Trumpism an Export Product?
Mar15 "There's No Global Warming" May Soon Become Official U.S. Government Policy
Mar15 Justice Department to Go After Russians...For Hacking Yahoo
Mar14 CBO Concludes that 24 Million Fewer People Will Have Insurance Under Ryan's Plan
Mar14 Can GOP Win on Healthcare Bill?
Mar14 Trump Drops Obama Wiretap Claim...Or Maybe Not
Mar14 Economic Populism May Not Help the Democrats
Mar14 Steve King Goes Full White Supremacist