Friday, August 4, 2017

Flake News: The Republican Turning of the Screwed

Repeatedly during a crazy two week period, we find a common thread: Republicans are shoving back at their President. Steve reflects on what may have been the inflection point in the Trump Presidency.

Yesterday's breaking news that Robert Mueller has empaneled a new grand jury in Washington, D.C. triggered what was at least a Def Con 3 wave of impeachment buzz throughout the political blogosphere. Once again, we here at BTRTN expect a flurry of questions about the possibility of impeachment, and about the odds of Donald Trump not serving his full term. We always say the same thing: impeachment is at least as much a political calculation if not more than a legal matter. Until Donald Trump’s political support in Congress collapses, the odds of removal through impeachment appear slim.

And that is what makes the timing of Mueller’s grand jury so interesting. 

In the past two weeks, we have seen a startlingly broad sweep of evidence that Trump’s grip on Republican support in Congress is eroding. And beyond Congress, we have seen instances in which Trump was openly, brazenly, and fearlessly dissed by organizations that only very recently might have held their tongues and fallen in line. 

Indeed, future historians may very well point to the last two weeks as the turning point in the presidency of Donald Trump. Make no mistake: it is hypothetically possible that this inflection point will bend in Trump’s favor. The decision to bring in General John Kelly as White House Chief of Staff could prove positive, as a stern military taskmaster functioning as a Leon Panetta Redux may transform a weak and chaotic executive branch into a functioning organization capable of processing an aggressive legislative agenda on an orderly basis.  

Then again, most likely not.

We expect just another sequel of the same, tired movie: Trump will prove unwilling to cede authority to the former General (or anyone else), will continue to tweet irresponsibly, and will undercut and infuriate Kelly with undisciplined outbursts about policy, personnel, random delusions, and the raw bile of his anger and fear of the Russia investigation. Kelly will simply be the latest staffer who made the mistake of not having the surname “Trump,” and he has the self-respect to quit before being Reinced.

If this trajectory proves accurate, those future historians will view the appointment and subsequent failure of Kelly as just one more reason that this two week stretch was kryptonite to Trump’s presidency. 

Though far from the most substantive disaster of this ten day period, the headfirst dive into an empty swimming pool executed by short-lived White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci does serve as an epic metaphor for the trajectory of this White House. Plumbing previously uncharted depths of vulgarity, Scaramucci characterized Reince Priebus as “a fucking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac,” and summarized his stylistic, philosophical, and intellectual differences with White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon by noting that “I’m not trying to suck my own cock.” Asked to assess Scaramucci’s communications style, Rudy Guiliani enthusiastically defended “the Mooch” by noting, without a trace of irony, “What you’re seeing in Scaramucci is the president’s style.” Ahah! Well played, Mr. Mayor!
But the reason that the Icarus ride of Anthony Scaramucci may prove to be so metaphoric is because the Mooch – like Donald Trump – rose to the top by crudely insulting everyone in sight, and then was stunned to realize that all those people who he pissed off on the way up were delighted to watch him go splat on the way down. What made the past two weeks so startling were the hard-landing counter-punches eagerly thrown at the suddenly vulnerable president.

For starters, in this short span of time, Trump took major blowback from each of the Boy Scouts, law enforcement, and the U.S. military, which has traditionally been a sort of holy trinity of bedrock conservatism. Pissing off all three in ten days? That would even be a challenge for Jane Fonda. Perhaps Trump's next move will be to figure out a way to enrage the National Rifle Association.

The Boy Scouts of America – itself a sort of prepubescent paramilitary training corps, famous recently for its grudging and hostile handling of gay rights issues – should be a relatively safe haven for any flag-waving moment, particularly one featuring a Republican President. Yet Donald Trump gave a stream of unconscionable speech to the annual national Boy Scout Jamboree that was so politically charged and inappropriate that it required the Boy Scout organization to immediately issue a formal apology for the words of the President of the United States. When Trump later claimed that the head of the Boy Scouts had called him to tell him his speech was the “greatest ever,” the Boy Scouts denied that such a call had taken place and referred questioners directly back to the apology. Worth noting, Mr. President: the very first of the twelve words in the Boy Scout Creed is “trustworthy.” 

Trump abruptly tweeted a 180 degree reversal in military policy, suddenly firing all transgender personnel in all branches of the U.S. military. The Pentagon coolly rebuffed the news by dismissing the legitimacy of the tweet as having been merely an “announcement,” not an actual military order. "Orders and announcements are different things, and we are awaiting an order from the commander in chief to proceed." Nothing has happened since. For the record, the last time the U.S. military decided that a directive from the President of the United States could be ignored was when Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas starred in Seven Days in May.

Donald Trump gave a speech to law enforcement officers in Long Island condoning policy brutality. Suffolk County immediately posted a notice declaring their commitment to lawful police conduct. White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced that the comments had been intended as a joke, which will have many people like Freddie Gray in stitches. Literally

Yet – remarkably – none of these three firestorms carried the same significance as those that illustrated that the first crocuses of pent-up Republican rebellion against their president finally broke through the permafrost. This was the week that the Republicans finally grew a pair of brass, well, to be accurate, ovaries. Two gutsy female Republican Senators and one tough old goat with an axe to grind abandoned Trump to end the attempted “skinny repeal” of Obamacare. Is it mere coincidence that Donald Trump had personally threatened one of those Senators and crudely insulted another? After failing to support an earlier effort to repeal Obamacare, Alaska Senator Linda Murkowski had been threatened by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that her state would suffer a decline in support from the Federal government for her vote. And, of course, Trump had famously proclaimed during the campaign that John McCain was “not a war hero.” Instant Karma’s gonna get you, Mr. President.

Congress stuffed a sanctions bill down an unwilling president’s throat with the near-unanimous support of Republicans, ensuring an override should Trump be foolish enough to veto it. Herein we see the full orchestra and chorus of Republicans nauseated by a President who refuses to take the threat of Russian interference in our elections seriously.

Then, of course, there was the loathsome stink of Trump’s venomous public attack on his own Attorney General. Lindsay Graham spoke for his Republican Senate colleagues in warning Trump that if he fired Jeff Sessions, there would be “holy hell” to pay. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, issued a more official notification to Trump that firing Sessions was a non-starter, tweeting that his Senate subcommittee would not even consider the affirmation of a replacement for Sessions until next year. 

The shelling from Congress continued when Arizona Senator Jeff Flake’s new book was published, which shoved a very sharp spike directly up Donald Trump’s nose. Flake appears to be the first Republican Senator to have wholly escaped from Trump’s reality distortion field, offering the thesis that the Republican Party sold its soul in order to win the White House. Consider this quote, courtesy of

"It was we conservatives who, upon Obama's election, stated that our No. 1 priority was not advancing a conservative policy agenda but making Obama a one-term president—the corollary to this binary thinking being that his failure would be our success and the fortunes of the citizenry would presumably be sorted out in the meantime."

Flake, in this pronouncement, invoked the words of Mitch McConnell, but indicted the entire campaign and presidency of Donald Trump. Donald Trump’s candidacy was keyed on pressing the hot buttons that triggered right wing hatred of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He never offered a vision of what he would do, only what he would undo. Flake’s words landed on Capitol Hill at the moment Trump’s lack of guiding philosophy was most clear: Trump told everyone he was ready to sign any bill at all that reached his desk repealing Obamacare. He could not care less what the replacement would be. All he wanted to do was to be able to say that he succeeded in repealing Obamacare. His failure to become involved in the granular details of healthcare policy both revealed his lack of commitment to actually improving healthcare and also sealed his party’s woeful inability to shape a coherent policy.

No one is suggesting that Jeff Flake is a bellwether for Republican sentiments: he was an outspoken critic of Trump throughout the campaign, and now has a target on his back from the right wing for a primary challenge. But Republicans will be more open to criticism from one of their own than from MSNBC. That’s the reason this Flake news is significant.

At the end of the day, the overwhelming reason that Donald Trump is testing the patience of his party continues to be his attitude toward Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Russian interference in the 2016 election. Once again, it was Lindsey Graham who threw down the gauntlet, claiming that “any effort to go after Mueller could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency unless Mueller did something wrong.” Respect for Mueller, and for the task he has been given, runs deep on both sides of the aisle. Yet Trump continues, to this day, to claim that the investigation is a “witch hunt” motivated by politics.

The steady drip, drip, drip of lies – whether directly related to Russia or not -- continue to bleed the President’s credibility.  Whether it is the revelation that he helped craft his son’s completely disingenuous explanation for the June 9 meeting with the Russians, or the leaked transcript of his phone conversation with the Mexican president that proves that Trump has known all along that Mexico would never “pay for the wall,” the willful deviance from truth is seeping into consciousness of the faithful. This week, the average of Trump's national poll approval ratings fell from 39% to 37%, which physicists might describe as a nuclear meltdown – uncontrolled fission in the fuel core.

Two months ago, we dismissed the odds of impeachment simply because of the math. Even if articles of impeachment could be squeezed through the House, the odds of reaching the 67 Senators required for conviction seemed remote. 

And yet in these short two weeks, we’ve seen Republicans in Congress begin to change their tune. 

Perhaps, in their hearts, they realize Jeff Flake’s flake news is actually the real deal: that this President has no overarching political philosophy, vision, or goal other than the veneration and glory of Donald Trump.

Perhaps they are now realizing that the President’s unmitigated fear of and hostility toward the Special Prosecutor is in and of itself an admission of guilt. 

Perhaps they are tired of a President who blames and insults them for his own failures of leadership, most notably on the central campaign promise of the Republican 2016 platform. 

Perhaps they have finally seen that he is perfectly willing to hang them out to dry for his own ineptitude.

But we sense a sea change, a moment when Republicans in Congress realize that that their leader is fighting a very different battle from the rest of them, particularly as 2017 marches inexorably towards 2018 and the midterm elections. His is a battle for survival, and they are just so much collateral damage.

Call it the turning of the screwed.

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