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Trump and McConnell Locked in a Cold War, Threatening the G.O.P. Agenda

The relationship between President Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, has disintegrated to the point that they have not spoken to each other in weeks, and Mr. McConnell has privately expressed uncertainty that Mr. Trump will be able to salvage his administration after a series of summer crises.

What was once an uneasy governing alliance has curdled into a feud of mutual resentment and sometimes outright hostility, complicated by the position of Mr. McConnell’s wife, Elaine L. Chao, in Mr. Trump’s cabinet, according to more than a dozen people briefed on their imperiled partnership. Angry phone calls and private badmouthing have devolved into open conflict, with the president threatening to oppose Republican senators who cross him, and Mr. McConnell mobilizing to their defense.

The rupture between Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell comes at a highly perilous moment for Republicans, who face a number of urgent deadlines when they return to Washington next month. Congress must approve new spending measures and raise the statutory limit on government borrowing within weeks of reconvening, and Republicans are hoping to push through an elaborate rewrite of the federal tax code. There is scant room for legislative error on any front.

A protracted government shutdown or a default on sovereign debt could be disastrous — for the economy and for the party that controls the White House and both chambers of Congress.

Yet Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell are locked in a political cold war. Neither man would comment for this story. Don Stewart, a spokesman for Mr. McConnell, noted that the senator and the president had “shared goals,” and pointed to “tax reform, infrastructure, funding the government, not defaulting on the debt, passing the defense authorization bill.”

Still, the back-and-forth has been dramatic.

In a series of tweets this month, Mr. Trump criticized Mr. McConnell publicly, then berated him in a phone call that quickly devolved into a profane shouting match.

During the call, which Mr. Trump initiated on Aug. 9 from his New Jersey golf club, the president accused Mr. McConnell of bungling the health care issue. He was even more animated about what he intimated was the Senate leader’s refusal to protect him from investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to Republicans briefed on the conversation.

Mr. McConnell has fumed over Mr. Trump’s regular threats against fellow Republicans and criticism of Senate rules, and questioned Mr. Trump’s understanding of the presidency in a public speech. Mr. McConnell has made sharper comments in private, describing Mr. Trump as entirely unwilling to learn the basics of governing.

In offhand remarks, Mr. McConnell has expressed a sense of bewilderment about where Mr. Trump’s presidency may be headed, and has mused about whether Mr. Trump will be in a position to lead the Republican Party into next year’s elections and beyond, according to people who have spoken to him directly.

While maintaining a pose of public reserve, Mr. McConnell expressed horror to advisers last week after Mr. Trump’s comments equating white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., with protesters who rallied against them. Mr. Trump’s most explosive remarks came at a news conference in Manhattan, where he stood beside Ms. Chao. (Ms. Chao, deflecting a question about the tensions between her husband and the president she serves, told reporters, “I stand by my man — both of them.)

Mr. McConnell signaled to business leaders that he was deeply uncomfortable with Mr. Trump’s comments: Several who resigned advisory roles in the Trump administration contacted Mr. McConnell’s office after the fact, and were told that Mr. McConnell fully understood their choices, three people briefed on the conversations said.

Mr. Trump has also continued to badger and threaten Mr. McConnell’s Senate colleagues, including Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, whose Republican primary challenger was praised by Mr. Trump last week.

Mr. Trump was set to hold a campaign rally on Tuesday night in Phoenix, and Republicans feared he would use the event to savage Mr. Flake again.

If he does, senior Republican officials said the party’s senators would stand up for their colleague. A Republican “super PAC” aligned with Mr. McConnell released a web ad on Tuesday assailing Mr. Flake’s Republican rival, Kelli Ward, as a fringe-dwelling conspiracy theorist.

“ChemtrailKelli,” an attack ad released by a Republican “super PAC” aligned with Mr. McConnell. Video by Senate Leadership Fund

“When it comes to the Senate, there’s an Article 5 understanding: An attack against one is an attack against all,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who has found himself in Mr. Trump’s sights many times, invoking the NATO alliance’s mutual defense doctrine.

The fury among Senate Republicans toward Mr. Trump has been building since last month, even before he lashed out at Mr. McConnell. Some of them blame the president for not being able to rally the party around any version of legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act, accusing him of not knowing even the basics about the policy. Senate Republicans also say strong-arm tactics from the White House backfired, making it harder to cobble together votes and have left bad feelings in the caucus.

When Mr. Trump addressed a Boy Scouts jamboree last month in West Virginia, White House aides told Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from the state whose support was in doubt, that she could only accompany him on Air Force One if she committed to voting for the health care bill. She declined the invitation, noting that she could not commit to voting for a measure she had not seen, according to Republican briefed on the conversation.

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska told colleagues that when Mr. Trump’s interior secretary threatened to pull back federal funding for her state, she felt boxed in and unable to vote for the health care bill.

In a show of solidarity, albeit one planned well before Mr. Trump took aim at Mr. Flake, Mr. McConnell will host a $1,000-per-person dinner on Friday in Kentucky for the Arizona senator, as well as for Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, who is also facing a Trump-inspired primary race next year, and Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska. Mr. Flake is expected to attend the event.

Former Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, a Republican who is close to Mr. McConnell, said frustration with Mr. Trump was boiling over in the chamber. Mr. Gregg blamed the president for undermining congressional leaders, and said the House and Senate would have to govern on their own if Mr. Trump “can’t participate constructively.”

“Failure to do things like keeping the government open and passing a tax bill is the functional equivalent of playing Russian roulette with all the chambers loaded,” Mr. Gregg said.

Others in the party divide blame between Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell. Al Hoffman, a former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee who has been supportive of Mr. McConnell, said Mr. McConnell was culpable because he has failed to deliver legislative victories. “Ultimately, it’s been Mitch’s responsibility, and I don’t think he’s done much,” Mr. Hoffman said.

But Mr. Hoffman predicted that Mr. McConnell would likely outlast the president.

“I think he’s going to blow up, self-implode,” Mr. Hoffman said of Mr. Trump. “I wouldn’t be surprised if McConnell pulls back his support of Trump and tries to go it alone.”

An all-out clash between Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell would play out between men whose strengths and weaknesses are very different. Mr. Trump is a political amateur, still unschooled in the ways of Washington, but he maintains a viselike grip on the affections of the Republican base. Mr. McConnell is a soft-spoken career politician, with virtuoso mastery of political fund-raising and tactics, but he had no mass following to speak of.

Mr. McConnell, while baffled at Mr. Trump’s penchant for internecine attacks, is a ruthless pragmatist and has given no overt indication that he plans to seek more drastic conflict. Despite his private battles with Mr. Trump, Mr. McConnell has sent reassuring signals with his public conduct: On Monday, he appeared in Louisville, Ky., with Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, for a discussion of tax policy.

Mr. McConnell’s Senate colleagues, however, have grown bolder. The combination of the president’s frontal attacks on Senate Republicans and his claim that there were “fine people” marching with white supremacists in Charlottesville has emboldened lawmakers to criticize Mr. Trump in withering terms.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee rebuked Mr. Trump last week for failing to “demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence” required of presidents. On Monday, Senator Susan Collins of Maine said in a television interview that she was uncertain Mr. Trump would be the Republican presidential nominee in 2020.

There are few recent precedents for the rift. The last time a president turned on a legislative leader of his own party was in 2002, when allies of George W. Bush helped force Trent Lott to step down as Senate minority leader after racially charged remarks at a birthday party for Senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina.

For the moment, Mr. McConnell appears to be far more secure in his position, and perhaps immune to coercion from the White House. Republicans are unlikely to lose control of the Senate in 2018, and Mr. Trump has no allies in the Senate who have shown an appetite for combat with Mr. McConnell.

Still, some allies of Mr. Trump on the right — including Stephen K. Bannon, who stepped down last week as Mr. Trump’s chief strategist — welcome more direct conflict with Mr. McConnell and congressional Republicans.

Roger J. Stone Jr., a Republican strategist who has advised Mr. Trump for decades, said the president needed to “take a scalp” in order to force cooperation from Republican elites who have resisted his agenda. Mr. Stone urged Mr. Trump to make an example of one or more Republicans, like Mr. Flake, who have refused to give full support to his administration.

“The president should start bumping off incumbent Republican members of Congress in primaries,” Mr. Stone said. “If he did that, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan would wet their pants and the rest of the Republicans would get in line.”

But Mr. McConnell’s allies warn that the president should be wary of doing anything that could jeopardize the Senate Republican majority.

“The quickest way for him to get impeached is for Trump to knock off Jeff Flake and Dean Heller and be faced with a Democrat-led Senate,” said Billy Piper, a lobbyist and former McConnell chief of staff.

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Pediatricians say Florida hurt sick kids to help big GOP donors

http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/18/health/florida-sick-kids-insurance-eprise/index.html

 

St. Augustine, Florida (CNN) When he was 11 years old, LJ Stroud of St. Augustine, Florida, had a tooth emerge in a place where no tooth belongs: the roof of his mouth.

LJ was born with severe cleft lip and palate, which explained the strange eruption, as well as the constant ear infections that no antibiotic could remedy.
With her son in terrible pain, Meredith Stroud arranged for surgeries to fix his problems.
But just days before the procedures were to take place, the surgeons’ office called to cancel them.
Like nearly half of all children in Florida, LJ is on Medicaid, which has several types of insurance plans. The state had switched LJ to a new plan, and his surgeons didn’t take it.
Doctors: 'Trick question' hurt sick kids

LJ wasn’t alone. In the spring and summer of 2015, the state switched more than 13,000 children out of a highly respected program called Children’s Medical Services, or CMS, a part of Florida Medicaid. Children on this plan have serious health problems including birth defects, heart disease, diabetes and blindness.
The state moved the children to other Medicaid insurance plans that don’t specialize in caring for very sick children.
Stroud says that for her son, the consequences were devastating. Despite hours of phone calls, she says, she couldn’t find surgeons on his new insurance plan willing to do the highly specialized procedures he needed. Over the next seven months, her son lost 10 pounds, quit the football team and often missed school.
“He was in pain every day,” Stroud said. “I just felt so helpless. It’s such a horrible feeling where you can’t help your kid.”
LJ filed a lawsuit against the state of Florida, and he was eventually placed back on Children’s Medical Services and received the care he needed. But some Florida pediatricians worry about other children with special health care needs who, two years later, are still off the program.
The doctors aren’t just worried; they’re angry.
First, the data analysis the state used to justify switching the children is “inaccurate” and “bizarre,” according to the researcher who wrote the software used in that analysis.
Second, the screening tool the state used to select which children would be kicked off the program has been called “completely invalid” and “a perversion of science” by top experts in children with special health care needs.
Third, in fall 2015, a state administrative law judge ruled that the Department of Health should stop using the screening tool because it was unlawful. However, even after the judge issued his decision, the department didn’t automatically re-enroll the children or even reach out to the families directly to let them know that re-enrollment was a possibility.
Finally, parents and Florida pediatricians raise questions about the true reasons why Florida’s Republican administration switched the children’s health plans. They question whether it was to financially reward insurance companies that had donated millions of dollars to the Republican Party of Florida.
“This was a way for the politicians to repay the entities that had contributed to their political campaigns and their political success, and it’s the children who suffered,” said Dr. Louis St. Petery, former executive vice president of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Experts outside Florida are also disturbed that the children were switched out of CMS, a program that’s served as a model for other states for more than 40 years.
“CMS is well-known and well-respected,” said Dr. James Perrin, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “It’s one of the earlier programs to build in assurances that these kids get the kind of care they need.”
“These are the sickest and most vulnerable kids, and (changing their insurance) can mean life or death for them,” said Joan Alker, executive director of the Center for Children and Families at Georgetown University. “This is really very troubling.”
Dr. Rishi Agrawal, an associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, agreed, adding that Florida should have more carefully considered how the insurance switch would affect the children’s health care.
“The process in Florida was particularly abrupt and poorly executed,” he said.
Mara Gambineri, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health, said that “at no time (during the insurance switch) did children go without medically necessary services.”
State officials, including a spokesman for Governor Rick Scott’s office, initially declined to comment directly on the pediatricians’ and parents’ concerns that the children might have been switched to benefit contributors to the Republican Party of Florida. On Friday, after this story was published, the Florida Department of Health released a statement asserting that such a claim “is 100 percent false.”
“The department’s number one priority is protecting the health and well-being of all Florida residents, especially children with special health care needs,” Gambineri wrote in an earlier email. “The department remains committed to providing quality health care services to Florida’s children with special health care needs.”

A mother’s anguish

In spring 2015, LJ’s mother received a phone call from a nurse at the Florida Department of Health.
Stroud had no idea that one word she would say to that nurse — just one single word — would cause her son months of pain and suffering.
Meredith Stroud's son, LJ, was born with cleft lip and palate. He lost his Children's Medical Service coverage when he was 11.

The nurse asked Stroud a series of questions, including whether LJ was limited in his ability to do things other children could do.
Despite his birth defect, LJ goes to school and plays with friends, so she answered no.
Stroud says that because of that answer, LJ lost his insurance with CMS, the program that has cared for children with special health care needs in Florida for 40 years, and was put on a different Medicaid insurance plan.
LJ was one of 13,074 Florida children kicked off CMS — that’s about one in five children in the program — as a result of the telephone survey, according to a presentationtestimony and a letter from Florida’s top health officials.
Stroud thinks back to her answer to the nurse’s question about limitations.
“That question’s not fair,” Stroud said of the one that got her child kicked off CMS. “What [the Florida Department of Health] did was totally wrong.”
“It was a trick question,” she added.

Pediatrician: ‘A truly duplicitous question’

Experts agree with her.
“I personally find it pretty astonishing that they can take a survey question like that and use it to justify the de-enrolling of these kids,” said Dr. Jay Berry, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School who studies policies for children with special health care needs.
What Florida did was “completely invalid,” added Dr. John Neff, professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of Washington, another expert on children with special health care needs.
The pediatricians explained that many children with serious and chronic medical conditions — such as cleft lip and palate, HIV, diabetes and cystic fibrosis — are often able to do things other children can do. However, they still require extensive and highly specialized medical care.
The question the Florida Department of Health nurses asked — “Is your child limited or prevented in any way in his or her ability to do the things most children of the same age can do?” — would lead to disqualifying children who truly have special medical needs from a program designed for them, said Stephen Blumberg, associate director for science at the National Center for Health Statistics and one of the world’s leading experts on the epidemiology of children with special health care needs.
Question No. 3

“Is your child limited or prevented in any way in his or her ability to do the things most children of the same age can do?”

“You would get false negatives. Your conclusion would be that a child does not have special health care needs when, in fact, the child does,” he added.
Gambineri, the Department of Health spokeswoman, said it no longer uses the survey that resulted in 13,074 children being removed from CMS.
“It is unfortunate the negativity surrounding this issue is a continued topic of inquiry, as the department and our stakeholders have put in a significant amount of time and effort to move past this issue for the benefit of the children we serve,” she wrote.
Six pediatricians from across Florida gathered to tell CNN their concerns about children losing CMS coverage. They accuse the state of hurting sick kids to help big GOP donors.

But pediatricians in Florida point out that many children who were removed from Children’s Medical Services using the controversial questionnaire were never put back on.
“This was a truly duplicitous question,” said Dr. Philip Colaizzo, a pediatrician in Jupiter, Florida, who said that many of his patients with special health care needs were taken off CMS. “It was a trick question.”
“It’s a perversion of science,” said Dr. Jeffrey Goldhagen, professor of pediatrics at the University of Florida College of Medicine and medical director of the Bower Lyman Center for Medically Complex Children at Wolfson Children’s Hospital.
Goldhagen added that he was speaking for himself and not the institutions where he works.
“It was a scam job,” added Dr. Nancy Wright, a pediatric endocrinologist in Tallahassee who said that dozens of her patients with diabetes were removed from the program.
Dr. Nancy Wright, a pediatric endocrinologist, says dozens of her patients lost their coverage on Children's Medical Services. "For the children with diabetes that I work with, it was a disaster," she said.

“They really tried their darnedest to kick the kids out of CMS,” added Dr. Carrol Fenn, an orthodontist in West Palm Beach. “They’ve messed up kids’ lives.”
“They’re the most vulnerable of our population, and that they can be booted off the plan that was designed to help them is just amazing. How can someone in an office make a decision like that?” asked Dr. John Obi, an adjunct clinical professor in plastic surgery at the University of Florida, who operates on children with cleft lip and palate.
“I congratulate whoever came up with that question,” he added wryly. “If you want to exclude virtually anybody, that’s the way to do it.”

Johns Hopkins expert: ‘I’m speechless’

Christina Bethell’s team came up with that question — and she’s furious.
Bethell is a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She and her team spent many years and millions of dollars coming up with the right questions to accurately identify children across the United States who might have special health care needs.
The list of questions — known as the Children with Special Health Care Needs Screener — is publicly available on the Hopkins website. Many state and federal agencies use it to help decide which children might benefit from special health services.
The Florida Department of Health, however, used the questions to do something completely different: to kick children out of a program.
That’s scientifically invalid, Bethell said. Using the questions that way — especially the question about limitations — would lead to denying children with special health care needs the services they require.
“I’m speechless,” she said.
To make matters worse, Bethell said, Florida repeatedly and publicly cited research done by her group at Hopkins — the Children and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative — to support the children’s removal from CMS.
“I feel really manipulated,” she said.
She thinks of the children who were taken off CMS and fumes that the tool used to remove them was her own work.
“I’m angry,” she said. “And I’m crestfallen for these families.”

Grave consequences for Florida children

The Shabanehs in Tallahassee are one of those families.
Aref Shabaneh, 8, is blind, and his sister, Yasmeen, 11, is severely visually impaired. Their mother, Reema Shabaneh, says they were kicked off CMS in 2015.
Aref Shabaneh lost his Children's Medical Services coverage in 2015. He is blind and reads in Braille.

Shabaneh says she told the Florida Department of Health nurse that they didn’t have limitations.
“Aref wants to do everything by himself,” she said. “He can play ball with friends. The ball has a bell, so he can hear it coming.”
After they were kicked off CMS, Shabaneh said, she couldn’t find an ophthalmologist on the new insurance plan willing to care for her children.
“I was so scared,” she said.
When Jennifer Rodriguez received the phone call from the Department of Health nurse, she said, she told the nurse she didn’t know how to answer the question about limitations. Her son, Alejandro, suffers from a congenital heart defect, asthma and kidney problems. Sometimes, his heart races and he has trouble breathing, but other times, he feels up to playing soccer with his friends.
“When I tried to explain the answer, she cut me off and said she was just doing her job and needed a yes or a no,” she said.
Rodriguez says she answered that her son, who was 10 at the time, did not have limitations. He then lost his CMS coverage.
“It makes me angry, because you would think that since he’s seeing a cardiologist, a nephrologist, a urologist and an asthma doctor, they would see he’s not your average child,” she said.
LJ, Alejandro and the Shabaneh children filed lawsuits and were put back on CMS. They were represented by the Public Interest Law Center at Florida State University.
Alejandro Rodriguez wears a nebulizer mask to help him breathe. After he filed a lawsuit, the state put him back on Children's Medical Services.

Many Florida pediatricians say their patients also suffered when they were taken off CMS and put on other Medicaid plans. The doctors say those other plans typically have fewer pediatric specialists than CMS, which specializes in caring for very sick children.
Dr. Lisa Cosgrove, a pediatrician in Merritt Island, Florida, said she had a difficult time finding an orthopedist to treat a 6-year-old with a broken elbow who had been taken off CMS. The girl ended up having surgery later than she should have and now can’t extend her elbow all the way.
She said a baby born with a clubfoot also suffered because she couldn’t find an orthopedist willing to take the baby’s plan. The baby couldn’t have the necessary casts to twist the foot back into place and may need surgery, Cosgrove said.
Dr. Elizabeth Curry, a pediatrician in Port St. Joe, Florida, said that last year, she took care of a baby whose eye wiggled back and forth involuntarily, which can be a sign of a brain tumor.
Curry said it took her more than a month to find an ophthalmologist willing to take the baby’s Medicaid plan — and the doctor she finally found was three hours away, in Pensacola.
Fortunately, the baby turned out to be fine.
“This child could have had cancer. That’s a kid who should have seen a doctor right away,” Curry said. “I feel terrible for these children. It makes me so angry.”
Dr. Elizabeth Curry, a Florida pediatrician, says some of her patients didn't get the treatment they needed because the state had removed them from Children's Medical Services.

Because of problems like these, switching the children’s insurance “was a complete dereliction of Florida’s responsibility to children,” said Goldhagen, the professor of pediatrics at the University of Florida College of Medicine.
Gambineri, the spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health, said the children didn’t suffer as a result of the switch, because the insurance plans they were moved to were “more than capable” of caring for them. She added that even before the 13,074 children were switched, those plans cared for tens of thousands of children with special health needs.
Other pediatricians agree that plans besides CMS have done a good job of caring for these very sick children.
The other plans “do a pretty good job with our families,” said Dr. Karalee Kulek-Luzey, medical director of the Pediatric Health Care Alliance, a group practice with multiple locations in the Tampa area. “They’re working really hard.”
“For the most part, they do a good job,” said Dr. Michael Freimark, a pediatrician in Plantation, Florida.
“We have a good relationship with the plans,” said Dr. Michael Gervasi, president and chief executive officer of the Florida Community Health Centers, a large medical practice with offices in several counties. Most of the time, he said, the plans take care of the children’s needs, but if there’s ever a problem, his practice contacts the plan, and they fix it.
Aref's older sister, Yasmeen Shabaneh, was also was removed from Children's Medical Services. She has a vision condition so serious that even a minor bump could cause her retinas to detach.

Florida’s ‘outreach’ to experts

In January 2016, about eight months after the Florida Department of Health started to move the 13,074 children out of CMS, Jennifer Tschetter, then the department’s chief operating officer, testified before the state legislature. She said that the decision to use the Hopkins screening tool was made “in consultation with … national experts.”
But it remains unclear who those experts were.
Tschetter, who has since left state government, did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.
Gambineri, the Florida health department spokeswoman, said the department did “research” into what Louisiana, California, Texas and New York “were doing and experiences they had in regard to clinical eligibility for children with special health care needs.”
When asked for the names of individuals Florida consulted in those states, Gambineri didn’t respond.
Gambineri added that “outreach” was made to the federal Health Resources and Services Administration.
An official at that agency said she spoke with a Florida health official.
Dr. Marie Mann, senior medical adviser in the Division of Services for Children with Special Health Needs at the federal agency’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau, said she spoke with Stannard, who works for the Florida Department of Health.
Mann says she told Stannard she couldn’t give her any guidance.
“I told her I was not in a position to provide advice,” Mann said.
Mann said she suggested that Florida health officials reach out to Daniel Armstrong and Dr. Jeffrey Brosco, director and associate director respectively of the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
“We will make sure they’re both involved in this review process,” Stannard wrote back to Mann in an email obtained by CNN under the Freedom of Information Act.
CNN asked Gambineri, the department spokeswoman, whether the department ever reached out to Armstrong to review and make recommendations on using the telephone survey to screen children out of CMS.
“Not to our knowledge,” Gambineri answered.
“I played no role in the decision-making process related to the use of the tool for the Children’s Medical Services program,” Armstrong wrote in an email to CNN.
Brosco said he told the Department of Health that in his opinion, a child should not be kicked off CMS based on a parent’s answer to the question about the child’s limitations.
“I gave them my feedback, and they said, ‘thank you for your work,’ ” Brosco said.
In July, Brosco was named the Florida Department of Health’s deputy secretary for CMS.

Christmas shopping at the Florida Mall

Despite the lack of support from the very experts they’d consulted, Florida health officials forged ahead with using the phone survey to disqualify children from CMS.
They had a schedule to stick to.
In November 2014, state officials set out to “go live” with the phone survey in six months, according to a timeline developed by the state and obtained by CNN under the Freedom of Information Act.
Before implementing the surveys, the officials gave themselves 21 days to “solicit feedback from the field” about the questions they would ask the parents.
One of the first things they did was to ask one of the state’s most experienced pediatricians to leave a meeting.
It was St. Petery, who at the time was the executive vice president of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Medicaid rules and regulations. He’d served as interim director of CMS for six months during the mid-1970s.
He’d also been a thorn in the side of the state Department of Health for years. He’d been instrumental in a lawsuit that accused the state of failing to reimburse doctors properly in the Medicaid program and to ensure that children receive adequate care.
His side eventually won that lawsuit, and the American Academy of Pediatrics gave him a prestigious award for being “a tireless advocate for children’s health and well-being.”
Dr. Louis St. Petery, a pediatric cardiologist and frequent critic of Florida's health policy, was asked to leave a state meeting where Children's Medical Services screening was discussed.

On December 13, 2014, St. Petery showed up at the Department of Health meeting. It was for the regional medical directors of CMS, the group of pediatricians who help run the program. St. Petery wasn’t one of the directors, but he’d been attending their meetings for many years in his role with the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
St. Petery said that just before the meeting started, Tschetter, then the department’s chief operating officer, approached him.
“She said, didn’t I want to go Christmas shopping at the Florida Mall?” St. Petery remembered. The mall was adjacent to the conference center in Orlando where the meeting was taking place.
St. Petery said he told Tschetter that he hates shopping, especially around the holidays, and wanted to stay at the meeting.
“I protested. I asked her, is this meeting not in the sunshine?” he said, referring to Florida’s Sunshine Law, which gives the public the right to access most government meetings.
“After she told me for the third time to leave, I decided not to create a scene,” he said.
St. Petery got up and left.
Other doctors watched the action, stunned.
“We were all kind of shaking,” said Dr. Barbara Rumberger, one of the CMS regional medical directors who attended the meeting.
After St. Petery departed, health officials explained that they would start screening children off of CMS. Their justification: a new analysis showing that half the children on CMS might not belong there.
There are no minutes for this meeting, according to Department of Health officials, but a year later, Tschetter presented similar data to the Florida Legislature.

A ‘totally inaccurate’ analysis

By Florida law, a child can be in CMS only if he or she has a “chronic and serious” condition requiring health care “of a type or amount beyond that which is generally required by children.”
The analysis Tschetter presented showed that about half of the children on CMS had lower than average risk scores, an assessment of how much a patient uses health care services.
Tschetter called these results “surprising.” By legislative mandate, children on CMS are supposed to have health needs greater those of other children.
“The analysis made clear, certainly to the department, that we were not meeting legislative direction: (that) the children in the plan have both chronic and serious health care conditions,” Tschetter told legislators. “It was clear to the department that something had to be done, because complying with legislative direction is certainly not optional.”
But an expert who developed the software Florida used to make that data analysis said the state did its calculations incorrectly.
“It’s totally inaccurate,” said Todd Gilmer, co-developer of the Chronic Illness and Disability Payment System and chief of the division of health policy at the University of California, San Diego.
Gilmer’s software, which is used by dozens of state Medicaid programs, tracks patients’ diagnoses and their prescription drug use to calculate risk scores for each individual.
After viewing Florida officials’ analysis of the data, he said they made two errors when they calculated that half the children on CMS had below-average risk scores.
First, he explained that his software relies on doctors’ diagnoses, and Florida failed to account for the fact that doctors frequently don’t document a child’s full diagnosis in the medical record. For example, if a quadriplegic child goes to the doctor because of bedsores, doctors often write down the reason the child came in — the bedsores — instead of the more serious diagnosis of quadriplegia.
Second, he said, Florida did the wrong calculation for disabled children, who represent 40% of the patients on CMS, according to Mallory McManus, a spokeswoman for Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration.
He said his software compares disabled children with each other. Even the ones who fall in the lower half of the risk-score spectrum still have serious and chronic illnesses, he said, such as HIV or heart failure.
He said that what Florida did was akin to assembling a group of people who are over 7 feet tall and calling the bottom half of that group short.
Gilmer called Florida’s analysis “kind of bizarre” and said he was disappointed to see his software “misapplied” by the Florida Department of Health.
Spokeswomen for the Florida Department of Health and the Agency for Health Care Administration did not respond directly to Gilmer’s criticism.
Gambineri, the health department spokeswoman, said that the department no longer uses the screening method that it used in 2015 and that parents can ask to have their children re-screened at any time.
“Our mission is now and has always been to provide the best health care possible to the populations that we serve,” McManus wrote in an email.

Pediatrician: ‘We were just irrelevant’

Pediatricians say that by the time the Department of Health meeting was held at the Orlando conference center at the end of 2014, they felt like Florida was dead-set on screening a large number of children off CMS.
They said state officials didn’t listen to their concerns, even though they were stated repeatedly, both in person and in writing.
At the meeting, health officials asked the pediatricians to tell them what was on their minds, according to Rumberger, one of the doctors who was there.
She said she and her colleagues brought up concerns that children might be taken off CMS inappropriately.
The Department of Health official wrote down what the doctors said on pieces of paper taped to the wall, Rumberger said. The official then told the doctors that these were issues to discuss at another time.
“She said, ‘We’re going to park these. We’re putting these ideas in the parking lot for some time, and we’re not talking about these things today,’ ” Rumberger remembered, adding that she was speaking on behalf of herself and not in her role as a CMS regional medical director.
“We were all amazed at what they did,” she added.
A few months later, the state held a series of telephone conference calls with the same CMS regional medical directors.
“They didn’t ask us ‘What do you think?’ or ‘Do you have any suggestions?’ ” Rumberger said. “It was just ‘This is how we’re going to do it.’ It was clear they didn’t want to have a free discussion.”
“It appears to be a very conscious decision to not get input and not receive any dissension,” said Goldhagen, the professor of pediatrics at the University of Florida. “We were just irrelevant.”
Dr. Rex Northup, another CMS regional medical director and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Florida College of Medicine, agrees.
“It was like, ‘When we want your opinion on a given topic, we’ll let you know, and we’ll provide that opinion to you,’ ” Northup said, adding that he speaks for himself and not the university or any other institution.
Several doctors present on those conference calls said they voiced their concerns anyway.
There’s no record of these concerns. According to the Florida Department of Health, no minutes were taken of these phone conferences.
CNN asked the Florida Department of Health about the meeting where St. Petery was asked to leave and about doctors’ complaints that the state steamrolled through a screening tool that would harm sick children.
“When CMS began the process of implementing a new screening tool in 2014, the department may have underestimated the need for stakeholder input and the time required to obtain feedback and ensure our community was comfortable with the mechanisms for determining clinical eligibility,” responded Gambineri, the Department of Health spokeswoman.
She added that the department has “engaged our stakeholders using several methods” including public meetings to solicit input from patients, parents and providers and “remains open to feedback and input in order to best serve children with serious and chronic medical conditions.”
True to its schedule, the state started screening children off CMS in May 2015.
Florida pediatricians repeatedly told the state that it was hurting sick, vulnerable children.
In August 2015, Goldhagen, Rumberger, Northup and 11 other doctors with positions at CMS wrote a letter to a Department of Health official saying the screening process was “flawed” and was removing too many children.
The doctors did not receive a response, Goldhagen said.
Two months later, St. Petery wrote to Department of Health officials, sharply criticizing the use of the screening tool.
He said he never received a response, either.
Dr. Elizabeth Curry, examining Micah Creamer, says she wrote to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, expressing her concerns about patients being kicked off Children's Medical Services, but the agency didn't respond.

Curry, the Port Saint Joe pediatrician who practices in a rural area of the Florida Panhandle, said she also complained to the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration about children being kicked off CMS, along with other issues affecting children on Medicaid.
She said the agency worked with her on some of the other issues but didn’t respond to her complaints about the children being taken off CMS.
“Our Agency has been in contact with the provider and is working with the health plan to resolve what issues might be resolved,” wrote McManus, the agency spokeswoman.
Curry said she took her complaints even higher.
“I even called the governor’s office once and left a message,” she said. “I admit that I finally gave up. I’m just trying to take care of my patients.”
Pediatricians interviewed for this story said they felt pressure from the state not to speak to the media about the removal of the children from CMS.
On November 15, 2016, Dr. John Curran, then the Florida Department of Health’s deputy secretary for CMS, said on a conference call that a CNN reporter was working on this story, according to several doctors on the call.
That evening, a department official wrote an email to the doctors who’d been on the call. It advised these pediatricians that prior to responding to media inquiries, they should contact the department’s communications director.
“I’m going to be so fired for saying all these things,” Rumberger said.
But she and other pediatricians say they’re speaking up because they feel that the Department of Health hurt children because they didn’t listen to their concerns.
They say it could be because pediatricians don’t tend to have millions of dollars to donate to political campaigns.
But insurance companies do.

‘Like a plot in a Carl Hiaasen novel’

All of this — the telephone survey, the question about limitations, the analysis that’s been called flawed — leaves many Florida parents and pediatricians suspicious about why the state wanted to take 13,074 children off CMS and why it worked so hard and so quickly to do it.
Switching the children from CMS to the other Medicaid plans didn’t save taxpayers money, according to McManus, the agency spokeswoman.
The doctors wonder, then, whether the inspiration for the change was political: to send taxpayers’ dollars to generous donors to the Florida Republican Party.
CMS is a public program; it’s not owned by a private insurance company.
When the children were taken off CMS, they were switched to 11 insurance plans that are owned by private companies. The parent companies of nine of those 11 plans donated a total of more than $8 million to Florida Republican Party committees in the five years before the children were switched.
“I knew it had to be about money,” said Wright, the pediatric endocrinologist in Tallahassee who said that dozens of her patients had their insurance switched. “This sounds very believable for Florida, and I’m from Florida.”
“When this was all unfolding, I told my office manager, ‘I feel like we’re in a plot in a Carl Hiaasen novel,’ ” she added, referring to the Miami Herald columnist who writes about politics and corruption in Florida.
Dr. Nancy Wright, a pediatric endocrinologist, says she thinks the state's motivation for taking patients off Children's Medical Services "appears to be about money. ... It's clearly not medical."

The companies that own the nine insurance plans contributed $8.6 million to Florida Republican Party committees from 2010 to 2014, according to an analysis done for CNN by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan nonprofit group.
Here’s a breakdown of how much money each insurance company with a Medicaid contract contributed to Florida Republican Party committees from 2010 to 2014:
  • $5.9 million from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida. Florida True Health is an affiliate of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida. At the time the money was contributed, Florida True Health owned 40% of Prestige Health Choice, which has a Medicaid contract with the state of Florida. In 2015, Florida True Health purchased Prestige outright.
  • $90,000 from Simply Health, which owns a Medicaid plan called Better Health.
  • $849,433 from Miguel Fernandez, the former chairman of Simply Health. In addition, Fernandez donated about $1.3 million to Scott’s Let’s Get to Work political action committee from 2010 to 2014.

Insurance companies’ outsize contributions to Florida Republicans

Nearly all states pay insurance companies to insure some of their Medicaid patients; this is not unique to Florida.
And insurance companies often contribute money to state political parties. That’s not unique to Florida, either.
What is unusual is the size of the contributions, even for a large state.
Take UnitedHealthcare, an insurance giant with business in all 50 states. From 2010 to 2014, United contributed $442,500 to Florida Republican Party committees, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The company’s next largest contribution to any other state political party was $145,000 to California Democrats — less than half the Florida amount.
Humana, another insurance company with a national reach, gave substantially more money to Florida Republican Party committees than to any other state political party committees.
From 2010 to 2014, Humana donated $482,815 to Florida Republican Party committees. Its next largest contribution was $213,823 to Florida Democrats. The next largest contribution after that was $22,000 to the Illinois GOP, less than one-20th the size of the contribution to Florida Republicans.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida gave Florida Republican Party committees $5.9 million from 2010 to 2014 and gave Florida Democrats $1.8 million. The next largest contribution after that from any other Blue Cross and Blue Shield company in the United States was $730,696 from Blue Shield of California to Democrats in that state — about one-eighth the size of the contribution to Florida Republicans.

Florida’s payments to the insurance companies

Nearly all states pay private insurance companies monthly premiums to insure Medicaid patients. It’s become big business.
The Florida Department of Health declined to say how much it paid the private insurance companies to insure the 13,074 children when they were switched out of CMS.
“If they got 13,000 new kids, (it’s) that times however many dollars per member per month,” St. Petery said. “I think that’s a lot of money when you start talking about that many kids.”
LJ Stroud sued the state of Florida to be put back on Children's Medical Services. He has now had the procedures that he needs.

These children came from CMS, a Medicaid program for sick children, and the state pays insurance companies more money to care for such children.
This is how it works, according to McManus, the spokeswoman for the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration.
Florida takes a look at all the people who’ve signed up with an insurance company and calculates a risk score for that group based on factors such as the age of the enrollees in the plan and their health conditions.
A plan with the lowest risk score has a “typical population” and might be paid a rate of, for example, $320 per person per month, McManus said. A plan with sicker enrollees might have a risk score that’s twice as high and so would be paid $640 per person per month, she added.
The numbers can get even higher from there.
“The state will pay a pretty good rate for these children,” said Agrawal, the pediatrician at Northwestern who studies health care systems for children with special medical needs.
“They could get paid thousands more per month for a child with serious medical needs,” said Steve Schramm, founder and managing director of Optumas, a health care consulting group.
“The enhanced reimbursement may be 10 times what the insurance companies get for a well child,” said Goldhagen, former director of Florida’s Duval County Health Department.
Yasmeen Shabaneh sued Florida and was placed back on Children's Medical Services.

Sick children are, of course, also costlier for insurance companies because they need more care. But insurance plans monitor that care to manage costs.
“Plans have gotten very sophisticated in their ability to manage very sick kids, so their willingness to take very sick kids is great,” said Jeff Myers, president and CEO of Medicaid Health Plans of America, an industry group representing insurance companies.
Pediatricians questioned whether such outsize political donations were an attempt to gain influence and favor with Florida’s Republican administration, which orchestrated the transfer of the children out of CMS and to the private companies.
“It certainly raises a lot of suspicion and concern,” said Northup, the associate professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine.
“Why would they make contributions in the hundreds of thousands and the millions to Florida Republicans? Why would they be so uniquely committed to Republicans in Florida? It gives one pause,” he added. “If you follow the money, at the very least, it’s worrisome.”
“It’s the left-hand-washing-the-right-hand kind of business,” said Dr. Joseph Chiaro, who was Florida’s deputy secretary of health from 2005 to 2011. “It breaks my heart.”
Six Florida pediatricians gathered in Orlando to tell CNN their concerns. They practice in rural, suburban and urban areas. Some of them are Republicans, and others are Democrats.
They said they feared that big donors had influence on the state’s decision-making process and that in many cases, the children suffered as a result.
“I don’t see this in writing anywhere, but my impression is, this was a way for political payback at the expense of the sickest of the Medicaid children,” St. Petery said.
“It just comes back to money or power. It’s not about health care for the children,” said Wright, the pediatric endocrinologist in Tallahassee.
“Just follow the money,” said Colaizzo, who runs a rural health care clinic in Pahokee, Florida.
State leaders “don’t give a damn about the kids. They don’t give a damn about the families,” said Dr. Marcy Howard, a pediatrician in Crystal River, Florida.

State officials and insurance companies respond

State health officials did not respond directly to the pediatricians’ concerns that campaign contributors had influence over Republican leadership’s decision to take the children off CMS.
“The Statewide Medicaid Managed Care program was designed to provide comprehensive care to recipients through high quality health plans with a payment structure designed to ensure that plans paid an appropriate rate based on the health conditions of those enrolled in their plan,” McManus, a spokeswoman for the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, wrote in an email.
“The program currently covers more than 2 million of Florida’s children, offers the strongest provider network and access standards in program history, and provides families with a choice of high quality, nationally accredited plans so that they can choose the plan that best suits their needs, including specialty plans for those who qualify.”
Alejandro Rodriguez also sued the state of Florida and was placed back on Children's Medical Services.

CNN reached out to officials at all nine insurance companies. Two responded.
“WellCare contributes to a variety of organizations that shape health care policy, including the Florida Republican Party committees, the Democratic Party committees and those without political affiliation,” wrote Alissa Lawver, a spokeswoman for WellCare. “The company also discloses and publicly reports all political contributions on its website above and beyond the requirements of state and federal law. As a provider of managed care, WellCare is committed to partnering with the state of Florida to provide access to quality, affordable health care solutions for the state’s most vulnerable populations. We maintain a robust provider network and offer comprehensive care management services to create personalized, coordinated care plans to help improve and maintain the health of families and children across the state.”
She added that WellCare has accountability to Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration, “which provides careful oversight of the state’s Medicaid program to ensure all members, including children that transitioned from Children’s Medical Services, receive access to the right care, at the right time and in the most appropriate setting.”
Ethan Slavin, a spokesman for Aetna, said the company makes “donations to campaigns for both major political parties to support and address issues that impact our customers and members.”
He added that “we are required to meet state rules and regulations regarding our network of health care providers and are consistently compliant with those requirements” and that “we regularly work with our members, health care providers and the state of Florida to move children with special health care needs into the Children’s Medical Services program, when appropriate and in the best interest of our members. Our integrated care management program regularly identifies these children and assists in this process.”
Miguel “Mike” Fernandez, founder and former chairman of Better Health, said he had contributed several million dollars to both Republicans and Democrats. He added that states move Medicaid patients into the care of private companies so they can “move the risk off their financial books.”

A victory for Florida families

Many pediatricians use strong language to describe their anger and frustration with the Florida Department of Health and what it did in 2015 to the 13,074 children.
“This has just been a nightmare, and we’re still experiencing the fallout,” said Dr. Toni Richards-Rowley, treasurer of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“It’s disgusting,” said Cosgrove, the pediatrician in Merritt Island. “It’s all about money and not looking out for the children.”
“Honestly, it makes me want to puke,” said Lida Sarnecky, nurse manager of the team at the University of Florida that takes care of children with cleft lip and palate.
“In my heart, what I want to do is go down to Governor Scott’s office and ask him, ‘What if this were your child or grandchild who couldn’t receive the care they needed? How would you feel then?’ ” she said.
By June 2015, some Florida parents had had enough.
Five children, including Alejandro Rodriguez, and Yasmeen and Aref Shabaneh, sued the state Department of Health to get it to stop using the telephone questionnaire to take patients off CMS, claiming that the state Department of Health hadn’t gone through formal rulemaking procedures.
The children won.
The state didn’t fight the ruling. Instead, it came up with a new way to screen children for the program — one that doesn’t rely on a telephone survey and takes into consideration a child’s diagnosis.
Aref Shabaneh lost his Children's Medical Services coverage when his mother told the state he didn't have limitations. "Aref wants to do everything by himself," she said.

Many parents and pediatricians assumed the state would soon reach out directly to parents to let them know they could reapply to have their children put back on CMS.
They were very wrong.
Five months after the judge’s decision, St. Petery, the Tallahassee pediatric cardiologist, implored the secretary of the Department of Health to reach out to parents.
To St. Petery, the reasoning was obvious: A judge had said that the state had violated the law. Reaching out to the parents was a way of correcting wrongdoing.
The state had a notice on its website about the ability to be rescreened for CMS, and at a meeting with state legislators, a department official had given out a phone number parents could call. But St. Petery knew that busy parents of very sick children might not attend official state meetings or notice pages on government websites.
“I would hope that you would consider notifying each of the parents of those 13,074 children that the tool by which their child was screened out of CMS has been declared invalid, and that they have the right to appeal that decision,” St. Petery wrote to Dr. John Armstrong, then secretary of the Department of Health and the state surgeon general.
Armstrong wrote back that doing so would violate federal regulations, since the children had been switched to other Medicaid insurance plans.
“Federal regulations prohibit direct marketing to children currently being served by another managed care plan,” he wrote back to St. Petery.
CNN was unable to reach Armstrong for comment. Gambineri, the Florida Department of Health spokeswoman, said he “is no longer employed by DOH.”
Not satisfied with Armstrong’s response, St. Petery sought help from US Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Tampa. Castor took his concerns to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
On March 23, 2016, an official at that agency sent an email to Justin Senior, then the Medicaid director at Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration. CNN obtained the email under the Freedom of Information Act.
In that email, the federal official explained to Senior that federal regulations do not prohibit Florida from reaching out directly to families.
“To clarify, 42 CFR 438.104 does not prohibit marketing,” wrote Jackie Glaze, associate regional administrator for the Division of Medicaid and Children’s Health at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, citing a federal regulation.
More than a year later, on July 24, 2017, the Florida Department of Health sent a letter to parents letting them know that their children could be screened to get back on CMS. The letter was sent to 6,081 parents whose children were removed from CMS and put on another Medicaid plan and were still on that plan and financially eligible for Medicaid, according to Gambineri, the Florida health department spokeswoman.
That letter was sent nearly two years after the judge’s decision. Pediatricians say they’re angry it took that long to directly let parents know about the possibility of getting back on CMS.
Gambineri said there was concern that parents might get confused.
“It was originally thought to be, and still is considered a risk, in terms of confusion and disruption to families, to send a letter because they have had rescreening available since 2015,” Gambineri said a few months before the letter was sent out.

Nelson Mandela and Mr. Rogers

Now that LJ Stroud is back on CMS, he’s a happy, strapping 13-year-old who loves to play football and horse around with his brother and sisters in the family’s backyard in St. Augustine.
But his mother looks back on the dark days in 2015, after her son was switched off CMS, when she says he would lie on the couch in pain, unable to get the surgeries he needed.
It’s not just her son’s physical pain that makes Stroud angry; it’s his emotional pain.
Since LJ Stroud was placed back on Children's Medical Services, he's been able to play football again.

When LJ was on CMS, Stroud says, he received excellent care and was a contented, well-adjusted child, never thinking of himself as different despite his birth defect.
But she says that when he was in pain because he couldn’t have surgery, he started to feel sorry for himself.
” ‘Why did God make me this way?’ ” she says he asked. ” ‘Why can’t I be like my brothers and sisters?’ “
When she hears about how top Florida officials have spoken with pride of what they did to her son and to more than 13,000 other children, she becomes livid.
Last year, Armstrong, then Florida’s surgeon general and secretary of health, made a presentation to the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet, a panel created by the state Legislature to promote children’s welfare.
Declaring that the Department of Health “cares about every child in Florida,” Armstrong explained how the state removed the 13,074 children from CMS.
Armstrong’s presentation quoted two great advocates for children, Nelson Mandela and Fred Rogers.
First, he quoted Mandela: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
And he quoted Fred Rogers, the star of the children’s television show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”: “Anyone who does anything to help a child in life is a hero to me.”
Stroud struggles for words to describe what she thinks of Armstrong quoting these two champions for child welfare.
“It’s just — it’s just disgusting,” she said. “I feel my blood boiling just thinking about it.”

‘We Must Call Evil by Its Name’: Republicans Criticize Trump, Jeff Sessions for Ignoring White Supremacists in Charlottesville Statements

Donald Trump did not hesitate to compare U.S. intelligence officers to Nazis but after white nationalists waving the Nazi flag erupted in violent clashes throughout downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday, the president failed to call out racists and chide white supremacists — even after a car plowed into a group of anti-racists protesters, killing at least one person.

A spokesperson for the University of Virginia Hospital cited one death and at least 35 injured on Saturday afternoon, the violent aftermath of a what appears to be a deliberate attack. White supremacists gathered near the college campus to protest the removal of a Confederate statute. Self-identified “alt-right” protesters —a key constituency of Trump’s base made up mostly of white men— marched through the campus carrying tiki torches Friday night.

“It’s been going on for a long time in our country, not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama, it’s been going on for a long, long time,” Trump said in a televised statement from New Jersey on Saturday. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides ― on many sides.”

We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 12, 2017

Hardly the high mark of rhetoric, Trump went on to boast about the economy — without once mentioning the reason for the rally or the car accident. “We wanna get the situation straightened out in Charlottesville and we want to study it,” he continued. “We want to see what we’re doing wrong as a country where things like this can happen.”

“It has no place in America,” he added. “What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives.”

What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives.#Charlottesville pic.twitter.com/DB22fgnu6L

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 12, 2017

Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, echoed his hollow sentiments on Twitter:

I stand with @POTUS against hate & violence. U.S is greatest when we join together & oppose those seeking to divide us. #Charlottesville https://t.co/p76Y9xQCPL

— Vice President Pence (@VP) August 12, 2017

 

The nation’s top cop, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, also failed to make any mention of racism or white nationalists:

“We stand united behind the President in condemning the violence in Charlottesville and any message of hate and intolerance,” Sessions said in a statement. “This violence is totally contrary to American values and can never be tolerated.”

By contrast, other Republicans were blunt and forceful in their condemnation of the racist rally:

The white supremacists and their bigotry do not represent our great country. All Americans should condemn this vile hatred. #Charlottesville

— Jeb Bush (@JebBush) August 12, 2017

 

Nothing patriotic about #Nazis,the #KKK or #WhiteSupremacists It’s the direct opposite of what #America seeks to be. #Charlotesville

— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) August 12, 2017

 

Very important for the nation to hear @potus describe events in #Charlottesvillefor what they are, a terror attack by #whitesupremacists

— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) August 12, 2017

 

Mr. President – we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism. https://t.co/PaPNiPPAoW

— Cory Gardner (@SenCoryGardner) August 12, 2017

 

Their tiki torches may be fueled by citronella but their ideas are fueled by hate, & have no place in civil society. https://t.co/himqTMBQnH

— Senator Hatch Office (@senorrinhatch) August 12, 2017

 

What ” WhiteNatjonalist” are doing in Charlottesville is homegrown terrorism that can’t be tolerated anymore that what Any extremist does

— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) August 12, 2017

The hate & bigotry on display in #charlottesville is dangerous & cowardly.

— Ronna McDaniel (@GOPChairwoman) August 12, 2017

 

The views fueling the spectacle in Charlottesville are repugnant. Let it only serve to unite Americans against this kind of vile bigotry.

— Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan) August 12, 2017

 

This is bigotry. This is racism. These are views we as the American people should reject.

— Steve Daines (@SteveDaines) August 12, 2017

 

Well, not Ted Cruz:

Americans must stand united in opposing those who aim to divide us through hatred and bigotry https://t.co/h7wa661eDv

— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) August 12, 2017

 

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon’s Deputy Politics Editor. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

5 Escape Hatches Republicans May End Up Using to Avoid an Imploding Presidency

While the downfall of President Donald Trump is far from assured, the signs are multiplying that the Republicans are preparing for a world in which Trump is no longer commander-in-chief. This is not the dreaming of the liberal resistance or the conservative #NeverTrump crowd; we’re talking about the actions of the Republican leadership, rank and file and Vice President Mike Pence himself.

No, the Republicans are not going to impeach Trump, demand his resignation or invoke the 25th Amendment to say he is incapacitated. But they are preparing escape routes from the fallout from his dismal poll numbers, stalled legislative agenda and mounting legal problems.

Six months ago, Republicans, whatever their qualms, saw no need for such planning. The 45th president, it was assumed, would sign into law the agenda of the congressional Republicans. The GOP would, in return, accommodate the president on his signature issues: jobs, immigration crackdown, revisiting free trade agreements, and restoring friendlier relations with Russia. With complete control of the government, the Republican vision seemed realistic.

Fat chance. Impulsive, unfocused and mendacious, Trump is now treated as an unpredictable menace against whom Republicans must build defenses. These defenses can also serve as escape routes if and when the GOP feels the need to break with the president.

1. The Sanctions Firewall

On July 27, House and Senate Republicans voted overwhelmingly to impose tougher sanctions on Russia, dooming Trump’s yearning to make nice with Russian president Vladimir Putin. The president’s allies originally resisted the additional financial penalties, but caved in under the weight of Trump’s repeated lies about his campaign’s contacts with Russians and his refusal to acknowledge the U.S. intelligence finding that Russia interfered on his behalf in the 2016 presidential election.

Trump’s identification with Russia has become so toxic that virtually every member of his party took the opportunity to reject it. The president can be accused of coddling Putin, but all of his putative allies on Capitol Hill have inoculated themselves against the charge.

2. The Sessions Firewall

Trump’s attempts to humiliate Attorney General Jeff Sessions into quitting were a transparent gambit to create a vacancy at the top of the Justice Department. With the Senate out of session in August, Trump could then make a “recess appointment” of a new AG who would not need Senate confirmation. The new AG could then fire independent counsel Robert Mueller, as Trump has made clear he wants to do.

In response, Senate Republicans united to set up a procedure under which the Senate is not formally recessed during the August break. If you check the Senate calendar for August, you will find a succession of days dedicated to “pro forma business,” which means “keeping the president from doing something stupid.”

To underscore their resolve, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a stalwart conservative and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, added that there is “no way” the Senate would consider confirming a new attorney general if Sessions were fired.

If Trump fires Sessions, Republicans now have a position from which to oppose him.

3. The Mueller Firewall

Two Senate Republicans have gone further to protect Mueller past August.

Thom Tillis, a hard-right Republican from North Carolina, has joined with Delaware Democrat Chris Coons in co-sponsoring legislation allowing the special counsel to make a legal challenge to any dismissal that would be reviewed by a three-judge panel.

Asked by Fox News if the measure was intended to protect Mueller from being fired by Trump, Tillis said, “There’s no question that it is.”

Meanwhile, Senator Lindsey Graham joined Democrats Cory Booker, Sheldon Whitehouse and Richard Blumenthal in introducing the Special Counsel Independence Protection Act.

“Any effort to go after Mueller could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency unless Mueller did something wrong,” Graham told reporters when introducing the bill.

If Trump does fire Mueller, the Republicans have established a strategy for separating themselves from the White House.

4. The Pivot to Taxes

Senate Republicans are ignoring Trump’s insistence that they continue the party’s failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan say they are moving on to tax legislation, which they feel offers a better chance of success.

Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) rejected Trump’s call, saying, “We’re not going back to health care. We’re in tax now. As far as I’m concerned, they shot their wad on health care and that’s the way it is. I’m sick of it.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the health committee, is working with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Democrats on potential measures to shore up, not repeal, the Affordable Care Act.

When Trump threatened the health care plans of Congress if the Senate didn’t heed his demand, Republicans called his bluff. The president predictably moved on to other obsessions.

5. The 2020 Escape Hatch

The New York Times reported that interviews with 75 Republicans at every level of the party reveal “widespread uncertainty about whether Mr. Trump would be on the ballot in 2020 and little doubt that others in the party are engaged in barely veiled contingency planning.”

Pence has set up a presidential political action committee, the first sitting vice president to do so. Pence’s outraged reaction to the Times story only underscored how threatening the perception of post-Trump planning is to the White House. Yet post-Trump planning is visible everywhere. Conservative Republicans with presidential ambitions, like Ben Sasse and Tom Cotton, are cultivating donors and advisers as if there were no Republican incumbent in the White House.

Rep. Charles Dent, a senior Republican from Pennsylvania and a relative moderate, said many in the party would welcome Trump’s exit.

“For some, it is for ideological reasons, and for others it is for stylistic reasons,” Dent said, complaining about the “exhausting” amount of “instability, chaos and dysfunction” surrounding Trump.

Six months ago, the Republicans gave Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt. Now they doubt he will benefit them, and they are acting accordingly.

Jefferson Morley is AlterNet’s Washington correspondent. He is the author of the forthcoming biography The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton (St. Martin’s Press, October 2017) and the 2016 Kindle ebook CIA and JFK: The Secret Assassination Files.

‘Watch out for the paramilitaries’: Right-wing militia groups (White Idiots) aligning with GOP officials under Trump

Right-wing militias are walking out of the anti-government shadows and into the Republican Party apparatus.

Armed anti-government groups have faced existential tension after President Donald Trump’s election, but they’ve resolved the dilemma by forming a “counter-resistance” to protesters of President Donald Trump and providing security to Republican groups, reported The Trace.

Timothy Snyder, a Yale University historian, warned after the election to “watch out for the paramilitaries,” saying the “end is nigh” when “men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader.”

“When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over,” Snyder warned.

That’s not quite what’s happening yet, but The Trace found at least five instances in three states where anti-government gun groups aligned themselves with conservative elected officials and GOP causes.
Oregon State Rep. Mike Nearman defended a legislative aide, Angela Roman, who spent four days in jail last month for lending a firearm to a fellow member of the Three Percent group who was prohibited from owning guns due to his felony record.

Roman and her Three Percenter friend also attended a pro-Trump rally in March that led to clashes with left-wing groups, and the militia member was arrested on weapons charges after injuring a police officer with pepper spray.

“I took a risk on hiring this young lady, and I’m pleased to announce that my bet paid off,” Neaman said after her arrest, although he failed to mention her involvement in the anti-government group.

The Republican Party of Multnomah County, Oregon, agreed to hire Three Percent members, as well as right-wing Oath Keepers, to provide security at future GOP events, saying they were natural allies because of their mutual support for Trump.
“His enemies are my enemies and his enemies are all our enemies,” said James Buchal, the local party chairman. “We are really in a life-or-death battle for the future of our society.”

In Michigan, nearly two dozen armed members of the Great Lakes Three Percenters and other militia groups stood guard outside a town council meeting after an armed left-wing group called Redneck Revolt protested violent threats against Muslims by the village president.

“We’re not here to intimidate anybody from either side,” said Mike Jenkins, the right-wing group’s leader, who admitted to coordinating the demonstration with the conservative elected official.

Texas State Militia members turned up last month to offer security during a peaceful protest at a public event for Gov. Greg Abbott, who had just announced his re-election campaign.

“There really was no need for semi-automatic weapons and the Texas Militia,” said Danny Diaz, a community organizer for one of the pro-immigrant protest groups. “It was just teachers, students, children, immigrants and people who care for human rights outside his event peacefully protesting … This type of intimidation tactic was way out of line.”

How States Across the Country Are Making Universal Health Care Happen in the Face of Rabid GOP Opposition

You may have noticed that quite a few of the formerly united states of America have been choosing to go their own way. My own state, Massachusetts, now blooms with sanctuary cities sworn to protect residents from federal intrusion. Its attorney general, Maura Healey, was among the first to raise the legal challenge to President Trump’s Muslim bans. She also sued Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education for abandoning rules meant to protect students from exploitation by private for-profit schools. (Think Trump University, for instance.) Even my state’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker, announced well before the presidential election that he wouldn’t vote for Donald Trump.

It’s been like the Boston Tea Party all over again, with citizens and public officials refusing to abide by the edicts of their supposedly lawful rulers. And Massachusetts is not alone. Hawaii, Washington State, New York, Minnesota, and Oregon all joined the legal battle against Muslim bans, while many other states have denounced federal policies that threaten the nation’s international reputation, the environment, or what’s left of democracy itself. So far at least 10 states (as well as Puerto Rico) and more than 200 cities have committed themselves to work toward the environmental goals of the Paris Accord, just as the United States as a nation had promised to do before Trump trashed the deal.

We should recall that our founding fathers cobbled together our federal union — our United States — because they were convinced that the revolutionary colonies, each standing on its own, could not survive. For a time, the Civil War did then tear the union apart, and, a century and a half later, here we are, overstretched and teetering under the rule of an administration whose allegiances, if any, are far from clear. But there’s no denying a new spirit in many states worthy of the Gadsden Flag of revolutionary times which warned, beneath a drawing of a distinctly American rattlesnake: Don’t Tread on Me.

Some prospective political challengers to the current feckless crew in Washington go even further. Take, for example, Ben Jealous, former head of the NAACP, a Democrat now vying to become governor of Maryland in 2018. He’s not the only Democrat running for that position, but he’s the one endorsed by Bernie Sanders. Jealous advocates something a bit vague called “climate action” plus a $15 minimum wage, an end to mass incarceration, the protection of immigrants, and — get this — statewide single-payer Medicare for All.

Let’s talk about that health care possibility. Recent polls and reporting by the New York Times indicate that a lot of voters — including Trump voters — who opposed Obama’s Affordable Care Act have changed their minds. They now not only like Obamacare but want to keep it and improve upon it. As one man in Pennsylvania told the Times, “I can’t even remember why I opposed it.” What’s more, a Pew survey reports that fully 60% of Americans now say that health care for all is the responsibility of the government.

This awakening has been prompted by the unexpectedly enlightening spectacle of belligerent Republicans smuggling tax cuts for the rich into their very own totally man-made plan to deprive tens of millions of Americans of their bodily well-being. West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, drove a stake through the heart of her party’s second “health” care plan with a single comment: “I didn’t come to Washington to hurt people.” (After Trump harangued a crowd of 40,000 at the Boy Scout Jamboree held in Capito’s home state, telling them that they “better get Senator Capito to vote for” a third Republican health care plan, she changed her mind, opting to hurt people rather than the President.)

The Stars Align

This combination of circumstances — the newly rebellious spirit of the states, the collapse of the corrupt Republican Congress, and the absence of executive leadership (as opposed to tweetstorms) — comes as part of a propitious realignment of astral constellations in America’s natal chart. It suggests an opportunity to change course and take action.

Bernie Sanders argued for just such a change during the Democratic presidential debates last year. Remember? He tried hard to push lessons to be learned from the Scandinavian social democracies: Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Every international evaluation rates those countries among the most successful and happiest on the planet, but Sanders proved unable to sell their ideas to Americans. His own understanding of social democracy was on the foggy side and that taboo word “socialist” kept getting in his way. But right now might be just the moment to try again.

Take Ben Jealous and his statewide Medicare for All plan. We’re talking about a single-payer universal system that would cover every resident of his state, regardless of the condition of his or her health, and with no insurance companies jockeying for profits in the mix. Such a simple system is the one used by all the Scandinavian countries. If Maryland and other states adopted it, they would be delivering at the state level what most developed nations already provide for their citizens.

Isn’t it worth a try? American politicians who refuse to learn lessons from Scandinavia usually dismiss those countries as too “small” to be relevant to America’s exceptionally grand experience. And they do have a point: it’s surely easier to implement a big plan on a smaller scale.

If that’s true, however, then applying Medicare for All at the state level should be easier. And of all the states, only eight have a population greater than that of Scandinavia’s biggest country, Sweden (nine million), while 30 states have fewer residents, most far fewer, than either Denmark (5.5 million) or Norway (5.3 million). In short, the most popular argument against single-payer health care for the nation — the contention that we’re way too big for such a system — simply vanishes if you start at the state level.

But hold on. If a state becomes a single payer, where does it get the money?
Taxes, of course. Progressive income taxes. And let’s not forget taxes on corporations and financial transactions. In most states, the money’s there, even if it has a way of clinging to the pockets of the rich and disappearing from circulation. The job of any good government should be to collect its fair share of the wealth and redistribute it for the good of all. That’s what social democracies do. That’s why they’re called social democracies.

Raising taxes on the rich in the United States, however, would take some persuasion at first, partly because so many of them seem to have lost all sense of obligation to others, and also because most millionaires claim to have worked hard for the money, and dammit, it’s theirs.

Not that you would know it in this country, but a larger tax bill more than pays for itself in the social benefits it buys: an overall population in better condition (and probably significantly less desperate, angry, and violent); a healthier, more reliable work force; kids in better shape who don’t miss school as often; and a widespread feeling of well being, of knowing that you will indeed get the care you need and that no one will be left behind. When Senator Capito claimed that she didn’t want to hurt people, surely she spoke for most Americans.

Nonetheless, there’s another reason that American politicians disdain the Scandinavian example and it may, on first glance, seem far more compelling. Those countries are not only small but to a significant degree ethnically homogeneous. So naturally, Norwegians don’t mind helping each other, since they’re all essentially alike — or so the argument goes anyway. On the other hand, diverse and polarized Americans are never going to be persuaded to let the state pick their pockets for the good of other, very different and presumably less deserving people.

And let’s admit it: the opposition does seem to have a point. Scandinavian social democracies are indeed among the most stable in the world. What’s more, they are economic democracies; that is, they have the world’s smallest gap between their upper and lower income earners. Their citizens are just about as equal to one another as it’s possible to become on our present planet.

Considered more carefully, though, that’s hardly a reasonable basis for arguing against trying to redistribute the wealth in a diverse American state. Quite the reverse, in fact. Historically speaking, Scandinavians weren’t born equal. Well into the twentieth century, many of them languished in isolated pockets of rural poverty, while others dined in style in prospering cities. Some were healthy, some not; some well educated, others unschooled. Some had good jobs, others none.

To overcome such disparities and engage all their citizens in the project of democracy, Scandinavians worked hard to create forms of government and social policies that made people ever more socially and economically equal. In Norway, for example, workers led the struggle for fair employment laws, gaining compensation for accidents in 1894, unemployment in 1906, and illness in 1909. Socially conscious political leaders worked to harness the nation’s wealth and used it to meet the basic needs of all men and women for health care, education, and employment, as well as for the special needs of children, the elderly, the disabled, and others. In short, when you radically equalize wealth in a country, even in increasingly multicultural ones like those of Scandinavia, you unite disparate people. When most poeple have plenty of money, populations begin to feel downright “homogeneous” — especially if they’re healthy, well educated, and happily employed in the bargain.

Scandinavian economists will tell you that social democracy developed out of pure self-interest. These were, after all, poor countries that learned one simple lesson fast: their strength and well being lay in solidarity. They invested in the future by investing heavily in children. Just think for a moment about all those well established Scandinavian programs that American feminists keep talking about: paid parental leave; early childhood education; and excellent, free, equally well funded public schools (and universities) for all. Could such giveaways be in the nation’s self interest? You bet. Scandinavian societies were, and still are, intent on developing a work force of the future that eventually will care for the very elders preparing the way.

The Road Ahead?

Were he elected, could Ben Jealous actually put any of these ideas to work in Maryland? The state has already laid some significant groundwork for his ideas. But really, who knows?

Instituting a single program statewide like Medicare for All or equal investment in public schools could prove to be a breakthrough experiment for this backpedaling nation. It might also be a reminder that such acts of solidarity worked well once upon a time, even in America — under both President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society in the 1960s.

Real social democracy, however, is far more than a few isolated programs. It’s a complete system of reciprocation that is incessantly subjected to adjustment and fine-tuning. Today, the comprehensive welfare state that characterizes Scandinavian social democracies has largely moved beyond political ideology. Always open for discussion, it’s nonetheless taken for granted and favored by every party, across a broad range of political opinion. It is simply the way things are.

Yet social democracy might not have developed at all had it not been for the leadership of the working class, a strong alliance of labor and farmers, and the undeniable claims of women. In that Democratic presidential debate last year, Bernie Sanders argued that “we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.” But he’s got that slightly backwards. For a real lesson in inspirational history, we should learn from what the working people of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway accomplished — and are still accomplishing — for their countries. Social democracy doesn’t come from the top down; it’s people’s politics at its best.

Unfortunately, it seems way too late to count on America’s working class to lead this country to social democracy. Here in the U.S., the plutocrats crushed labor long ago and corporatized the farms; women were turned back in the 1970s, social welfare in the 1990s. Who even remembers exactly when the working class or the poor fell — or were pushed — off the edge of the political map? A woman worker in an Indiana factory where candidate Trump promised to save jobs, speaks now (as workers are let go and the plant moves to Mexico) of his having “blown smoke up our asses” with a “sneaky kind of shit-eating grin” on his face. The Democratic Party — once the party of the working class, lest you’ve forgotten — has just announced yet again its intention to “devise an agenda that will resonate” not with workers but with the “middle class.” Meanwhile, working-class Americans, some still wearing their Trump hats, turn their gazes upward and wait for something — anything — to trickle down.

So have no illusions. A single experimental program like statewide Medicare for All, coupled with the taxes to pay for it, won’t transform this country into a social democracy. Nor, on the other hand, is it likely to lead to the dissolution of the Union and a second civil war.

Still, a single program launched by a single state is better than none. And it just might work.

If it does, states can look to the Scandinavian toolbox for other projects. What’s more, a good idea in one state may prove contagious, as we’ve seen with the rise of sanctuary cities and pledges of allegiance to the Paris Accord. (States are learning from the consequences of bad ideas too, including the catastrophic financial collapse of Kansas after its Republican governor’s stubbornly stupid Reaganomics tax-cutting regime.)

Some states, like Massachusetts, are even taking inspiration from their own feistiness. In California, Governor Jerry Brown told the Los Angeles Timesthat if Trump shut down the U.S. satellites gathering climate change data, “California will launch its own damn satellite.”

Sounds good to me, but for now, as a healthy, happy Medicare recipient myself, I’ve got my eye on Maryland and statewide Medicare for All.

Ann Jones is a journalist, photographer (Getty Images), and the author of eight books of nonfiction, most recently, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars—The Untold Story. She writes regularly for the Nation and TomDispatch.com.

Elizabeth Warren’s Pet Project Has Already Returned $12 Billion to Swindled Families—So Naturally Republicans Want It Dismantled

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/elizabeth-warren-schools-republicans-latest-progress-consumer-financial-protection?akid=15923.275016.Y5dO2H&rd=1&src=newsletter1080295&t=21

 

Less than a week after the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau celebrated its sixth anniversary, the Trump administration issued a decisive blow to the Bureau’s latest progress regarding a key arbitrations rule, which it now aims to nullify.

For Republicans, the CFPB must be curtained like similar government agencies at the helm of President Trump’s deregulation agenda. But the policies championed by the CFPB continue to greatly benefit the average American.

“The question is, why has [the CFPB] drawn so much fire from the Republicans in Washington?” asked CFPB founder Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren at a press conference Tuesday with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). “Why is it that the banks and the financial services industry [are] after it day after day after day? I’ll tell you the answer. It’s because it works.”

The CFPB “has provided needed oversight to mortgages, credit cards, student loans and other financial products,” explained Ken Blackledge, a produce farmer and independent voter from Central Iowa. His letter to the editor published in the Des Moines Register on July 25 seeks to emphasize the bipartisan importance of Warren’s agency on the heels of pivotal Dodd Frank reform.

“That little agency has forced the biggest financial institutions in this country to return nearly $12 billion directly to families they cheated,” Warren stated. “It’s handled more than a million complaints. It’s done tough oversight and enforcement, and it’s come out with regulations that—piece at a time—are beginning to level the playing field between giant financial institutions on one hand and American families on the other.”

Watch:

Alexandra Rosenmann is an AlterNet associate editor. Follow her @ale

Republicans Are Showing Every Intention of Protecting Their President From Historic Scandals

Photo Credit: Evan El-Amin / Shutterstock

 

I have the feeling that we may look back on the week just past as a watershed moment in the President Donald Trump era. I know it seems as if we have those every other day, and it’s true that this isn’t the first one. Firing the FBI director, James Comey, certainly counts as a historical turning point. But last week was the six-month anniversary of the inauguration and it featured two events that I think may turn out to have been extremely important, even if nothing comes of it.

The first was the stunning interview with the New York Times which demonstrated that the president is psychologically unbalanced and dangerously ignorant. We knew that before. But he’s getting worse not better.

It wasn’t just the strange historical fantasies such as his assertion that Napoleon’s “one problem is he didn’t go to Russia that night because he had extracurricular activities,” or his obvious confusion between life insurance and health insurance. It wasn’t even the fact that he seemed to have hallucinated that he’d instituted cast, sweeping reforms such as when he stated “I’ve given the farmers back their farms. I’ve given the builders back their land to build houses and to build other things.”  All of this was extremely bizarre to say the least. If you didn’t know better you might think it was some kind of elaborate put-on.

But underneath this farcical display of presidential ineptitude was something more sinister. He spent much of the time railing against law enforcement officials whom he perceived to either be disloyal to him personally by failing to corrupt themselves on his behalf or are corruptly serving his enemies.

He smeared former FBI Director Comey with the accusation that his private briefing of the Christopher Steele dossier was an attempt to get “leverage” on the president. He threatened special prosecutor Robert Mueller that he’d better not go beyond what he sees as a very narrow mandate to look into the possible campaign collusion to look into his finances.

He said the current acting FBI director, Andrew McCabe, was tainted by the fact that his wife ran for office as a Democrat; and that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein can’t be trusted because he’s from Baltimore — and it’s a Democratic city. Perhaps the most astonishing attack was made against his most loyal Republican ally, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom he seemed to have irrationally latched on to as the reason for all his troubles when he recused himself from the Russia investigation.

He is clearly terrified by the special prosecutor and is contemplating taking drastic action to put an end to his probe.

Which brings us to the second bombshell that happened last week. After this New York Times interview was published, the Washington Post reported that Trump had been talking to his lawyers about the presidential pardon and even if he might be able to pardon himself. If he wants to abruptly put an end to the investigation one imagines that might do it.

On Saturday, Trump tweeted this:

 

While all agree the U. S. President has the complete power to pardon, why think of that when only crime so far is LEAKS against us.FAKE NEWS

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 22, 2017

Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow appeared with George Stephanopoulos on ABC News and said that this tweet meant nothing and that pardons had not been discussed at all. Then Trump’s new communications director Anthony Scaramucci told Fox News that he talked with president last week about the pardon but Trump said he wouldn’t have to do it because he hadn’t done anything wrong. Clearly, it is on his mind.

The question of whether the president could conceivably pardon his accomplices and himself has been around since the drafting of the Constitution. Indeed, the possibility of that is one of the reasons George Mason gave for refusing to sign it. He wrote:

The president of the United States has the unrestrained power of granting pardons for treason, which may be sometimes exercised to screen from punishment those whom he had secretly instigated to commit the crime, and thereby prevent a discovery of his own guilt.

And who says no one ever anticipated someone like Donald Trump becoming president?

Other founders said that it was impossible to believe that any president would do such a thing. Why he’d be remembered as Benedict Arnold! James Madison wrote, “If the president can be connected, in any suspicious manner, with any person, and there be grounds to believe he will shelter him, the House of Representatives can impeach him.” One might have assumed that at one time, but it’s looks as though that’s not going to work out.

After that shocking interview in which the president babbled ignorantly about history, policy and politics and then threatened and smeared law enforcement, inappropriately defined the boundaries of the special prosecutor’s investigation and attempted to get the Attorney General to resign so that he can replace him with someone who won’t recuse himself from the Russia probe, the Republican congressional majority gave a collective shrug. They don’t care.

A few of the usual suspects like Senator Susan Collins of Maine said she thought he should just let the investigation play out. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul said that he believed Trump could pardon himself but “cautioned” him that there might be political fallout. For the most part, Republicans ran in cowardly fashion from the question, unwilling to stand up and do what’s necessary in this situation which is to tell the president that if he fires the Special Prosecutor or starts pardoning people, they will have no choice but to start impeachment proceedings.

It’s possible that they don’t think he’s really serious about this. It is pretty crazy. But it’s obvious by that loony interview that he’s losing his grip and that there aren’t people around him who will restrain his worst impulses. He already fired James Comey. There is nothing really to stop him from firing Sessions, Rosenstein and anyone else who stands in his way.

And he does have a plenary pardon power although it’s disputed whether he could pardon himself or issue a broad enough pardon to encompass a full scope of crimes his associates haven’t even been charged with. Nonetheless, it’s certainly possible that he will try and the only real way to stop him is for the Republican leadership in congress to let him know that they will not let him.

They have shown no sign that they will do their duty.

And yet their president is unsatisfied. It’s not enough for them to simply let him get away with destroying every ethical norm and pushing every law to the limit. He demands that they defend his outrageous behavior. On Sunday he tweeted:

 

It’s very sad that Republicans, even some that were carried over the line on my back, do very little to protect their President.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 23, 2017

He couldn’t be more wrong. They are proving every day that they are more loyal to him than they are to their own oaths to the Constitution. He should be thanking them for their service.

Heather Digby Parton, also known as “Digby,” is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

When Will Republicans Turn on Trump? It’s Happening Already

At some point, congressional Republicans will entirely abandon President Donald Trump. How do we know this? If you look closely, you’ll notice that it’s already happening. One by one, Republicans on the Hill are growing tired of Trump’s poorly-informed, lazy, self-centered lack of leadership, and it’s a safe bet that more than a few members are wondering whether the 2018 midterms will turn out better without Trump dragging them down.

Whether this precipitates a Barry Goldwater Watergate moment in which Republican leadership hikes down the block to insist upon Trump’s resignation remains to be seen, but what’s immediately observable is that the Trump coalition is rapidly vaporizing, leaving the chief executive with fewer and fewer influential defenders in Congress. The rapid, awkward demise of Trumpcare and the president’s confounding reaction in the aftermath might’ve been the last straw in an already ungainly relationship between both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Frankly, if I were Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or Speaker Paul Ryan, I’d strongly consider cutting bait with Trump given the way he has repeatedly set them up to fail while doing little to exercise any kind of meager leadership. Without a substantive ally in the White House, it becomes less likely they’ll continue to tolerate and backstop his uneducated, rookie gibberish and social media outbursts, embarrassing the party and tainting it with the stink of his failed administration. How much longer will they continue to tolerate Trump playing honk-honk-goes-the-truck and tweeting on the john while they spend valuable political capital on legislation he barely understands and, despite his marketing acumen, has repeatedly fumbled?

The failure of Trumpcare was partly about the president’s lack of even a basic, entry-level sense of how a bill becomes a law. It was also partly about Trump’s running-on-fumes political capital. The whole concept of repealing and replacing Obamacare with the snap of his short fingers merely set up Trump and Congress to fail. Not only is it nearly impossible for conservatives to create a affordable, universal health care program, but it was never going to get done within a few short months, much less “on day one.” Since Congress was unable to match a lofty goal established by a political amateur, Trump set them up to fail.

Compounding the failure to pass the Senate bill, Trump began to screech weeks ago that if it didn’t pass, he would simply push to repeal Obamacare without an immediate replacement. Incidentally, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., reminded us what would happen in the event of a repeal:

CBO scored repeal without a replacement – it’s a humanitarian disaster of incomprehensible scale. 32M lose insurance. Premiums go up 100%.

— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) July 18, 2017

On the political front, Trump’s threat to push for a repeal once again begged for failure: If the Trumpcare bill couldn’t pass with Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress, how the hell would a full repeal have any chance of passing? Nevertheless, what did Trump stupidly do seconds after Trumpcare failed on Monday? He threatened to repeal Obamacare. What happened after that? We learned it would never pass the Senate, given that at least four GOP senators almost immediately announced they would vote against a repeal bill. (In fact the Senate couldn’t pass a full repeal even if they had 51 votes. Without 60 votes, they can only repeal the budget-related aspects of Obamacare via reconciliation, which would leave major sections of the law intact, such as essential health benefits and other consumer protections.)

A top Republican told CNN’s David Wright on Tuesday, “[Trump] was playing with a fire truck and trying on a cowboy hat as the bill was collapsing, and he had no clue.” Elsewhere, Trump has lost the support of Charles Krauthammer and Fox News’ Judge Andrew Napolitano regarding the Trump-Russia scandal. The very fact that Fox News has begun to talk about that issue shows a weakening of support there, to say nothing of Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith, who ripped the Trumps‘ bungled response to the various Russia bombshells. Likewise, Trump has long since lost the support of Republican A-listers like Joe Scarborough who’s gone so far as to leave the party he’s represented on cable news and in the halls of Congress for decades, thanks to Trump’s erratic and undisciplined shenanigans.

Compounding the rapid collapse of Trump’s Republican support, the Wall Street Journal editorial board — normally a safe space for the GOP — excoriated Trump on Tuesday. Here are the two most salient paragraphs from the piece:

Don’t you get it, guys? Special counsel Robert Mueller and the House and Senate intelligence committees are investigating the Russia story. Everything that is potentially damaging to the Trumps will come out, one way or another. Everything. Denouncing leaks as “fake news” won’t wash as a counter-strategy beyond the President’s base, as Mr. Trump’s latest 36% approval rating shows. …

Mr. Trump somehow seems to believe that his outsize personality and social-media following make him larger than the Presidency. He’s wrong. He and his family seem oblivious to the brutal realities of Washington politics. Those realities will destroy Mr. Trump, his family and their business reputation unless they change their strategy toward the Russia probe. They don’t have much more time to do it.

If you’re a Republican and the Wall Street Journal editorial board flogs you like this, you’d better circle the wagons and lawyer up. As the board suggested, serious trouble is brewing, and it could boil over faster than Trump expects.

The president has, through his unapologetic bullshit and glib incompetence, virtually isolated himself as federal investigators circle the White House like vultures, waiting for Trump and his people to continue incriminating themselves. While he still maintains his 35 percent support — the gaggle of brainwashed loyalists who still aren’t bored with all of this “winning” — there’s blood in the water now, and we can feel sure there are more than a few private, informal conversations taking place in which the concept of “President Mike Pence” is sounding very, very tremendous.

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon.com. He’s also the host of “The Bob & Chez Show” podcast, and a weekly guest on both the “Stephanie Miller Show” and “Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang.” Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Bombshell report: Kremlin directed GOP congressman to stage pro-Putin ‘show trial’ on the House floor

A bombshell report claims that Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who has long been described as “Putin’s favorite congressman,” was given explicit instructions by the Kremlin for how to attack sanctions against Russia last year.

The Daily Beast reports that “after being given a secret document by officials in Moscow, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher sought to alter sanctions legislation and tried to set up a virtual show trial on Capitol Hill” last June, right at around the time that Donald Trump Jr. and key members of the Trump campaign met with Russian nationals who claimed to be representatives of the Russian government’s efforts to undermine the candidacy of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Rohrabacher’s original plan was to have a show trial in Congress of anti-Putin campaigner Bill Browder in which he would “confront Browder with a feature-length pro-Kremlin propaganda movie that viciously attacks him—as well as at least two witnesses linked to the Russian authorities, including lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.”

The purpose of this “show trial,” according to an email reviewed by the Daily Beast, was to undermine a set of sanctions placed on Russia that were named after Sergei Magnitsky, who served as Browder’s tax attorney before being imprisoned after exposing a Russian corruption scandal.

“Rohrabacher’s office was given the film by the Prosecutor General’s office in Moscow, which is run by Yuri Chaika, a close associate of President Vladimir Putin who is accused of widespread corruption, and Viktor Grin, the deputy general prosecutor who has been sanctioned by the United States as part of the Magnitsky Act,” writes the Daily Beast. “That same Prosecutor General’s office also was listed as being behind the “very high level and sensitive information” that was offered to Donald Trump Jr. in an email prior to his now infamous meeting with Russian officials at Trump Tower on June 9—just days before the congressional hearing.”