The backlash from Atty. Gen. William Barr’s release of his summary of Robert S. Mueller III’s report dominated much of the news this week, but sometimes it’s the smaller stories that illuminate bigger themes.
That’s the case with the fight over money for the Special Olympics, which highlighted three problems for President Trump:
He’s surrounded by subordinates eager to drag him into their ideological battles; two years in, his thinly staffed White House still stumbles over the basics; and the public is now primed to accept certain types of negative information about his administration, which can spread rapidly as a result.
A GOLD MEDAL FOR POLITICAL CLUMSINESS
The administration’s annual budget contains thousands of line items — the summary alone runs 148 pages — and, as Noah Bierman wrote when Trump released it, the document mostly elicits shrugs.
It’s Congress that allocates money for federal agencies, not the White House, and lawmakers have shown little interest in Trump’s budget proposals, in part because the president has seldom fought for any of them, other than his border wall.
Precisely because no one take it very seriously, however, the annual spending plan has become something of a playpen for the small-government ideologues surrounding Mick Mulvaney, the former budget director and now Trump’s acting chief of staff.
Hence the annual proposals for dramatic cuts in food stamps, an end to federal support for the arts, fee increases at national parks and other ideas that have created political pain for the administration but which never stood a chance even when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress.
That dynamic also explains the proposal to zero out the federal government’s $17.6-million support for the Special Olympics.
The administration’s proposal to cut the money wasn’t new — it was proposed and rejected by Congress last year too. What was unexpected was the way a proposal that no one in the administration seemed to take seriously blew up on them.
The unraveling began when Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) questioned Education Secretary Betsy DeVos about the budget cut at a hearing on Tuesday. The video of their exchange took off on social media. The sight of a billionaire Cabinet member defending a budget cut that affects disabled children immediately connected with negative impressions that large numbers of voters already hold about Trump and his circle.
By Wednesday, when the questioning moved to a Senate hearing, with Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois pushing DeVos on the plan, the administration was fully on the defensive. White House officials seemed caught by surprise.
On Thursday, Trump, who has better political instincts than his hapless Education secretary, reversed the administration’s position, saying, “I’ve overridden my people.”
By then, however, the political damage was done. Don’t be surprised if you see a Democratic campaign ad one day proclaiming, “They even tried to wipe out the Special Olympics.”
SWAGGERING INTO DIFFICULTY
The Special Olympics fight was just one example of the administration’s inability to keep focus this week as Trump celebrated what he sees as a liberating victory in the Mueller investigation.
As Bierman and Eli Stokols wrote, Trump also gave Democrats a political gift by deciding to fully embrace a court case brought by Republican state attorneys general that seeks to overturn the Affordable Care Act.
Democrats made that case a centerpiece of several of their campaigns in November’s midterm elections. Republicans, they accurately said, had gone to court seeking to eliminate protections for people with preexisting health conditions.
In December, the federal judge in Texas who was considering the case issued his ruling, saying that the entire healthcare law should be declared unconstitutional. The case is now on appeal.
Until this week, the administration had kept the case at partial arm’s length — taking the position in the lower court that only part of the law should be invalidated.
But on Monday, the administration switched, notifying the appeals court that it would side with Texas and other Republican-controlled states in seeking to have the law thrown out in full.
In taking that position, Trump once again sided with Mulvaney. He overrode objections from both Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Barr, as well as administration lawyers who believe the lower court decision is poorly reasoned and unlikely to survive appeal.
Trump reinforced the decision Tuesday when he visited Capitol Hill and urged Republican senators to reopen the healthcare debate, much to the consternation of Republicans and the delight of Democrats, as Bierman, Jennifer Haberkorn and Noam Levey wrote.
Healthcare continues to divide Republicans and unite Democrats, who credit the issue for many of their House victories in 2018. GOP lawmakers have no plan for replacing the Obama-era healthcare law if the courts were to invalidate it, and the chance of the Democratic-majority House approving a bill that Republican senators would find acceptable is almost zero.
Late last year, Mulvaney was one of the administration officials counseling Trump to precipitate a government shutdown to get money for the border wall. Despite how that turned out, his influence in the White House appears to have increased.
WAITING FOR MUELLER — PART TWO
The end of Mueller’s investigation has unquestionably been good for Trump. The headline conclusion in Barr’s summary — that Trump’s campaign hadn’t actively participated in or conspired with Russia’s efforts to influence the election — backed up the president’s oft-repeated slogan of “no collusion.”
As Bierman and Haberkorn wrote, Trump and his allies quickly went on the offensive as Democrats tried to decide how to respond.
Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have been using Barr’s conclusions to attack the committee chair, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank).
Democratic committee chairs noted that Barr’s four-page summary quoted only two sentences of Mueller’s text. They demanded that Barr release the full report, which runs more than 300 pages, by Tuesday.
Justice Department officials say Barr won’t meet that deadline but does expect to release much of the report within “weeks, not months.” Some parts of the report might include classified material. Others might include material covered by grand jury secrecy, they note.
Whenever the text does come out, however, Democrats are betting that it won’t look as good for Trump as Barr’s summary did. At minimum, they note, Barr said that Mueller included “evidence on both sides” on the issue of whether Trump obstructed justice. The details of that evidence likely won’t be to the president’s liking.
Meantime, as Megerian wrote, while the Russia investigation is over, Russian meddling in elections isn’t. The U.S. still remains seriously under-prepared for election interference by Russia and other adversaries, experts say.
AVENATTI IN THE DOCK
Michael Avenatti’s life of luxury threatens to come crashing down now that prosecutors have brought charges against him in both New York and Los Angeles, as Mark Barabak and Michael Finnegan write.
The California charges allege years of tax fraud, which could put Avenatti behind bars if he were convicted and potentially cost him millions.
As the lawyer for Stormy Daniels, Avenatti delighted in tormenting Trump. Now, the tables are turned and the president is jabbing back: MAGA this week means “Michael Avenatti got arrested,” he and his allies have gleefully proclaimed.
What’s behind all those executive orders Trump loves to sign? Not much, Bierman reports.
Bierman analyzed Trump’s first 101 executive orders — all of the ones published through the start of this week. Many ordered studies, created review panels or set out broad themes. Few made any substantive change in federal law or policy.
Trump loves executive orders, however, because they create the impression of action, even if nothing really happens.
CROWDS FLOCKING TO DEMOCRATIC FIELD
With so many Democrats running for the nomination, one might expect the lesser-known candidates to have trouble gaining attention.
Not so, Stokols wrote from New Hampshire, where voters seemed eager to see long-shot candidates as well as the better known.
Two of the better known candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, are each appealing to the same voter bloc, Janet Hook reported. Their emerging rivalry will test who truly appeals to younger voters and whether that appeal is based more on left-wing ideology — Sanders’ approach — or a vaguer sense of generational affinity.
Candidates have less affinity, however, with the tech industry. They’re still happy to take money from people who work in the industry but they’re keeping it low-key. Silicon Valley has become a minefield for the Democrats, Evan Halper reported.
Halper also looked at the San Diego-based psychologist whose research into how Google search results can influence voters has become the centerpiece for conservative claims of victimization.
GERRYMANDERING COMES TO COURT — AGAIN
The Supreme Court has looked several times at the issue of political gerrymandering and has yet to figure out a clear position.
At least four conservative justices, led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., say that the court should simply stay out of the issue. The Constitution leaves such political questions to legislatures, they say.
Four liberal justices have taken the position that the Constitution should be interpreted to put some limits on the power of a political majority to perpetuate its power by using its control over drawing district lines.
Former Justice Anthony M. Kennedy held the swing vote on the issue for several years and didn’t finally decide. Now, as David Savage wrote, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh seems to hold the swing vote, and he seemed conflicted when the court heard arguments on the latest gerrymandering case this week.
DRILLING FOR A NEW SECRETARY
Senators moved toward confirming David Bernhardt, Trump’s choice to be Interior secretary, but not before pressing him on the issue of offshore drilling. The previous secretary, Ryan Zinke, had moved to open more coastal areas to drilling, but Bernhardt seemed to suggest he was in no hurry to dive into that politically difficult issue.
MIXED SIGNALS IN ASIA
About an hour south of Seoul, out of range of most North Korean rockets and artillery, the South Koreans have spent billions building a huge, modern base — for the U.S. Army, David Cloud reported.
“We have created a new city, the newest, most modern facility in the United States Army,” said Paul Stuart, the deputy to the garrison commander at the base.
But even as the base takes shape, Trump has moved to demand more money from South Korea, a demand that has strained ties with a key ally.
The administration is anxious to counter China’s influence. As part of that, officials have urged major U.S. research universities to cut ties with Huawei, the giant Chinese technology company. As Don Lee reports, several major universities have taken steps in that direction.
The U.S. has a problem in Saudi Arabia, and it’s still not being fixed, Doyle McManus writes. That’s because the problem is the administration’s favored ally — crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.
HINCKLEY FOUR DECADES LATER
Thirty-eight years ago, he tried to assassinate President Reagan. Today, John W. Hinckley Jr. lives with his mother and brother and is conducting a relatively normal, happy life. Del Wilber reports used new psychological analyses released by a federal court to paint this portrait of a would-be assassin now moving into a quiet middle age.
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