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Trump to Address Congress Tonight

Tonight, we may find out what President Donald Trump actually intends to do in the first 100 days of his administration. Up until now, he has issued a number of executive orders, which collectively have achieved almost nothing. This is not surprising since most of the things he has promised, such as a wall on the Mexican border, tax reform, and tariffs on imported goods, require congressional action. In a speech tonight to a joint session of Congress, Trump might lay out concrete plans on things he wants Congress to do.

It will be especially interesting to see how specific it is. "I want a 45% tariff on all goods imported from China" is specific and could be written into a bill passed by Congress. "I want to bring back 50,000 coal mining jobs" is not something Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) could jot down, put into a bill, and bring to the floor of the House for a vote. To the extent that Trump lists specific items he wants Congress to act on, he may get some of them. If they are all vague, then effectively he is handing control to Ryan and to a lesser extent to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who actually is more interested in operating the machinery of power than in what he can do with said machinery.

One item that is on everyone's mind is the replacement for the ACA. Congressional Republicans are badly divided on the issue. If Trump comes with a detailed plan (not likely; see below), there is a fair chance he will get it. But if he sidesteps the issue or just talks in vague generalities, he will have missed an opportunity to put his stamp on the replacement.

Of course with Trump, it is also possible that the speech contains almost no actionable items, and is just a generic attack on the media and his other enemies, and a restatement of how great he is. If it is a rambling speech with no focus, then Ryan (possibly in consultation with Vice President Mike Pence), will be free to push his own agenda of tax cuts and "reforming" Social Security and Medicare as he sees fit. (V)

Trump and Ryan Are on a Collision Course

No matter what Donald Trump says in his speech tonight, he and Speaker Paul Ryan are on a collision course over Social Security and Medicare, the largest items in the federal budget. Trump promised numerous times that he would not touch the third rail of American politics: Social Security and Medicare. Ryan has produced numerous budgets cutting Social Security and ending Medicare as we known it, replacing it with a system in which seniors would get vouchers for a fixed amount of money to buy private health insurance. These two visions are not compatible. When the rubber finally meets the road, either these popular programs are maintained or they are changed.

But that is not all that is at stake. Tax reform is also high on both Ryan's to-do list as well as Trump's. However, the kind of "reform" the Republicans want really means big tax cuts for businesses and the top 1% of Americans. To avoid blowing a gigantic hole in the budget, which Republicans oppose, there have to be equally large cuts elsewhere. Social Security, Medicare, and defense are the only budget items with enough money to fund the tax cuts. Furthermore, to be able to pass the tax cuts using the budget reconciliation process, which can't be filibustered, Congress needs to pass a blueprint for the budget this Spring. Absent a budget plan with reconciliation instructions, the entire tax cut plan could die. The time for Trump to state what he actually wants to do in terms of budgets and taxes is now. Yesterday, he said he wants to increase the defense budget by $54 billion. If he also wants to avoid touching Social Security and Medicare, then he is going to have to explain the math, preferably not using fake numbers, as Ryan actually understands this stuff and is not easily fooled. (V)

Does the U.S. Really Need More Military Spending?

As noted above, Donald Trump has unveiled a preliminary budget, one that would expand military spending by $54 billion, while cutting other departments (particularly the State Dept. and the EPA) to the bone.

Does this make sense? As a political matter, possibly. Republicans tend to be pro-military hawks, and soldiers tend to vote a straight GOP ticket. Defense contractors also tend to give generously to the party. So, in essence, expanded military spending is just a form of pork, not much different from $100 million for a bridge, or $20 million for farmers to not grow corn. The only problem, politically speaking, is exactly how much voters feel the pain of the budget cuts that Trump plans. A shiny new tank doesn't help out that many people, whereas a polluted river, or citizens who are left high and dry in a foreign country for want of embassy, or PBS going out of business could prove to be a black eye for the administration.

As a practical matter, on the other hand, it really makes no sense at all. The United States already spends almost $600 billion annually on defense. That's four times as much as #2 China ($145 billion), and—in fact—is more than the next 10 countries on the list spend combined (China, plus Saudi Arabia, Russia, UK, India, France, Japan, Germany, and South Korea). Heck, the entire world, besides the United States, only combines to spend about $950 billion. The point is, America's defense establishment is already quite well funded. The only plausible justification for even more money would be if there were plans to dramatically expand the nation's military presence abroad. But since Trump's "America First" agenda is to reduce the United States' commitments in other countries, and to international organizations like NATO, this is clearly not in the cards.

Now, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell certainly know all of this. And it's possible that Trump knows that they know all of this, and that his real plan is to make the proposal, get shot down, and then point the finger at Congress. We may (or may not) have a clearer picture after tonight's speech. (Z)

Trump in Prime Form on Monday

One gets the impression that Donald Trump was off the grid over the weekend. Maybe Melania took away his cell phone, or perhaps the Internet service at Mar-a-Lago was out of order. Whatever the case may be, after a quiet couple of days, he came out with guns blazing on Monday, uncorking a number of wild statements.

To start, there was simply no way he could let the Academy Awards pass without comment. And The Donald did not disappoint. In an interview with Breitbart News, the President opined that, "They were focused so hard on politics that they didn't get the act together at the end." In other words, he managed to complain about the Trump jokes and take a shot at the Academy's royal screw-up in a mere 86 characters. Twitter has made him very efficient.

Later in the day, Trump talked to Fox News, an outlet more than happy to spoon-feed his propensity for conspiracy thinking. They led him to water with this question:

It turns out his organization seems to do a lot of these organizing to some of the protests that these Republicans are seeing around the country against you. Do you believe President Obama is behind it and if he is, is that a violation of the so-called unsaid presidents' code?

Trump was happy to drink, declaring that, "I think that President Obama is behind it because his people are certainly behind it. And some of the leaks possibly come from that group, which are really serious because they are very bad in terms of national security." Needless to say, neither he nor Fox News offered any evidence to support these rather serious (and hard to swallow) charges.

The real head-scratcher of the day, however, and one that shows a remarkable lack of knowledge, or self-awareness, or both, came at a meeting with the nation's governors. Reflecting on the challenges of replacing Obamacare, Trump announced, "Now, I have to tell you, it's an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew health care could be so complicated." Nobody? In fact, here is a partial list of people who knew long ago that health care is very complicated:

  • Anyone in the medical field
  • Anyone in the insurance business
  • Anyone who has ever submitted an insurance claim
  • Anyone who has been in politics for more than two years
  • Anyone who has even slight familiarity with Obamacare, Medicare, or Medicaid
  • Anyone who reads The Economist, the New York Times, or the Washington Post
  • Anyone who did not fall off the turnip truck yesterday

The general sentiment here—that addressing this issue is harder than the President expected—may be a good one, but this was a very clumsy way to say it, opening Trump up to all sorts of ridicule. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) had the honor of being the first to mock Trump, laughing merrily when Anderson Cooper repeated The Donald's words, and remarking that, "Some of us who were sitting on the health education committee, who went to meeting after meeting after meeting, who heard from dozens of people, who stayed up night after night trying to figure out this thing, yeah we got a clue. When you provide health care in a nation of 320 million people, yeah, it is very, very complicated."

Monday's adventures may be a preview of what's going to be said in Tuesday's speech. If so, then the address is likely to go over like a lead balloon. (Z)

Wilbur Ross Confirmed for Commerce

Wilbur Ross was middle of the road when it comes to how much controversy his cabinet appointment generated. On one hand, he's a billionaire who is awfully cozy with Wall Street, he has ties to Russia through his involvement with the Bank of Cyprus, and he has significant financial holdings in China that he has no intention of divesting. On the other hand, he is a political moderate (and former Democrat), he's much more of a globalist than Trump, and having built his fortune himself, he certainly knows a little something about commerce. On Monday, he was officially confirmed by a vote of 72-27. Not the 51-50 of a Betsy DeVos, but not the 98-1 of a James Mattis, either.

Now that he is confirmed, Ross will be on the front lines of some of the biggest fights that President Trump has on the horizon, including the renegotiation of NAFTA, cutting taxes, rewriting the budget, and paying (or not paying) for health care. Next up for the Senate, meanwhile, is Secretary of the Interior-designate Ryan Zinke, who should be confirmed with ease. (Z)

Spicer Says There Is Nothing Further to Investigate about Trump-Russia Ties

In his daily press briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said yesterday: "The president has spoken forcefully time and time again that he has no interest in Russia." Spicer also said there was no need for a special prosecutor to investigate Trump's ties with Russia. The problem with Spicer's statement is that the intelligence community thinks there is a connection and increasingly many members of Congress—including Republicans—think the connection needs to be fully investigated. What also needs to be explained is Eric Trump's 2008 comment that Trump's businesses, "see a lot of money pouring in from Russia." Trump's son also said: "And in terms of high-end product influx into the US, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets." Remarks like this don't align well with Spicer's declaration that there is nothing further to investigate. (V)

Bush Calls Media "Indispensable to Democracy"

Former president George W. Bush said yesterday: "I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy. That we need the media to hold people like me to account." That is a far cry from Donald Trump's calling the press "the enemy of the American people." Bush also noted that he spent a significant amount of energy extolling the importance of a free press in countries overseas that don't have one, and that attacking the U.S. domestic press would be counterproductive to trying to sell democracy abroad. Bush and Trump are not on good terms and Bush's comments yesterday are not going to bring them closer. A spokesman for Bush said that on Election Day, Bush voted for "none of the above." His father, former president George H. W. Bush, voted for Hillary Clinton. During the primaries, Trump viciously attacked Jeb Bush. The Bushes could yet emerge as a force within the Republican Party opposing Trump in some ways. (V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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