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Friday Talking Points [442] -- Trump Did Not Deny Tapes Exist!

[ Posted Friday, June 23rd, 2017 – 17:26 PDT ]

Every so often, we have a certain reaction to a bit of political news. We then fully expect at least a few other political commentators to have the same reaction, only to be surprised when it seems that nobody else read things the way we did. This is precisely where we find ourselves over President Donald Trump's recent tweets, where he supposedly put the issue to rest of whether secret audio recordings were ever made in his White House. Everybody seems to be buying his spin, and nobody questioned the obvious loophole he left himself. Because if you read what he wrote and take it at face value (not reading more into it than he actually says), Trump still has not answered the question of whether such tapes exist or not. Not even close.

Here are the two Trump tweets in question:

With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea...

...whether there are "tapes" or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings.

Trump not only makes the loophole obvious, he actually rubs our faces in it -- "I have no idea whether there are 'tapes' or recordings." Got that? There might be tapes, but Trump "has no idea" if they even exist or not. His final declaration carefully uses the word "I" to avoid any statement pertaining to anyone else at the White House: "I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings."

This, as any parent of a teenager knows, is technically called "getting cute" with the facts. Trump's tweets were reportedly vetted by several lawyers before he was allowed to release them, which isn't really surprising at this point. Even without lawyers, Trump is a master at "getting cute" with how he says things. The tweet which got him into all this trouble is a prime example: "James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations" -- since all Trump is really saying is that Comey "better hope" that any such tapes don't exist.

In Trump's recent tweets, all he is really saying is that he personally "did not make, and do not have, any such recordings." Trump didn't push the "Record" button himself. Trump has no such tapes concealed upon his person. That's it. That's all Trump is admitting to. He's not saying that anyone else in the White House didn't make such tapes, or now has such tapes. Indeed, Trump even goes out of his way to state this explicitly: "I have no idea" whether any such tapes exist, or ever existed. No idea!

There is a world of difference between what Trump said and a real across-the-board denial, such as: "Such recordings do not and have never existed in my White House," or: "No tapes were ever made, period."

But, it seems, nobody else parsed Trump's statement in such a literal way. All the news stories so far blithely read into Trump's statement a lot more than is actually there. The assumption of: "Well, Trump has now fully addressed the issue -- there are no tapes" is utterly false, and yet the entire punditocracy seems to be happily pulling the wool over their own eyes. Now, we haven't read everything everyone's written, so if there are others who have noticed this wide discrepancy between what Trump seems to be saying and what he actually said, we apologize for not noticing. But it still strikes us as odd that so many are going along with what seems to be a pretty obvious ruse.

We sincerely hope that some congressional Democrats will bring this discrepancy up during some future hearing into the Trump White House, and also that Robert Mueller is paying attention to what Trump didn't say more than the extremely narrow admission that he actually did make. Because we don't think anyone really ever thought that Trump himself secretly pushed "Record" on his smartphone and then casually laid it on a table during Oval Office conversations. We don't think anyone ever thought that such recordings, if they do exist, would only exist on Trump's personal phone, either. Trump admitting that neither of these is the case certainly does not lay to rest the question of whether such tapes were ever made by anyone -- not by a long shot.

But we've got plenty of other things to get to, so we'll just leave it at that for the time being. Has it really gotten to the point where Trump uses blatant weasel words and nobody even notices? We sincerely hope not.

The week's political news was dominated by two events. The first was a special House election in Georgia, and the second was Mitch McConnell finally releasing the Senate's healthcare reform bill. We'll get to the Senate bill in the talking points, but we have to draw back a bit from the Democratic defeat in the Georgia election and take a bigger-picture look at what's going on. Because by week's end, there was almost an open revolt by some Democrats against Nancy Pelosi continuing to stay in her House leadership role.

We wrote about the Pelosi controversy yesterday, without taking a pro or con position. Pelosi's problem is her wide name recognition, and her negative numbers. A recent poll put her at 30 percent approval nationwide, and 50 percent disapproval. Independents disapprove of her to the tune of 58 percent. Even among Democrats, Pelosi has 19 percent disapproval. In order to win back the House, Democrats are going to have to compete in swing districts. In these districts, Pelosi's numbers are probably worse. And Karen Handel just showed every Republican House candidate how to successfully demonize Pelosi in their ads.

It's not just Pelosi, however. The party faces a much bigger problem. Divisions within the ranks continue, and nobody at the top of the party even seems willing to address the growing schism. When Republicans lost in 2012, they put together a post-mortem document recommending changes in the party by March of the next year. Democrats have yet to do anything similar. We wrote about this back in April, in an article that ended:

Convene a group to identify what Democrats have been doing wrong and what they've been doing right. Create a document which lays out strategies for future success, and then (unlike the Republicans) actually pay some attention to it. Create a list of priorities for the party and tactical advice for individual Democratic candidates. It is time to begin moving forward, and part of that should be examining what has been going so wrong over the past few years. People need to get beyond their 2016 primary election choice and start working together once again, or this sort of flareup is just going to happen over and over again. And nobody really wants to see that.

And yet, here we are, in the midst of yet another flareup, still with no plans to even identify what has gone so wrong for the party in the past few elections. The progressives are still upset with the establishment Democrats, and vice-versa. A whole lot of energy is spent on bickering that should really be spent on opposing Republicans.

The best argument for fixing what's wrong that we saw this week came from Billy Michael Honor at HuffPost. He lives in the Georgia Sixth District where Democrat Jon Ossoff lost to Handel. Here's what he had to say about the race, after personally experiencing it from within the district:

This, however, was not the only reason Ossoff lost the 6th. More than brand saturation the primary problem was messaging. Whether they admit it or not, the Democratic Party thought Ossoff could ride the wave of Trump hate into Washington DC. This is why Ossoff's campaign platform was pretty much a conglomeration of cherry picked issues that appealed to various 6th district interest groups topped with the ever motivating "help us stand up to Trump" message.

The problem with this message is it lacked any compelling progressive vision for the future. It also lacked anyway to substantively convince the average politically uninterested citizen why they should give a damn about the Democratic Party. The message simply says, "vote for us, we won't be as bad as the other group." This is how Hilary Clinton lost the general presidential election, this is how Jon Ossoff lost last night and this is how Democrats will continue to lose if they don't get the message right.

Hello? Tom Perez? Are you paying attention? Democrats have got to figure this out, and soon. How many political corpses does it take before you order an autopsy?

Of course, as always, there was plenty of other things going on in the political universe, so we're going to have to just run quickly through some stories you may have missed.

A contractor for the Republican National Committee left a massive database of almost every American voter (200 million of them) unsecured on the internet this week. It's impossible to say whether anyone else downloaded this information or not.

Sean Spicer is slowly fading into the background, but the Trump White House seems to be having problems replacing him. As CNN snarkily put it: "So far, all that search has revealed is that the people the White House wants aren't interested in the job and the people who are interested in the job aren't wanted by the White House." Not surprising -- who in their right mind would want Spicer's job, at this point?

Jobs -- two factories (Carrier and Boeing) that Trump hailed as "saving American jobs" are now either outsourcing the jobs or just laying people off. Winning!

Trump appointed William C. Bradford to a job dealing with Native Americans, even though he's had some eye-raising comments in the past about other minorities, including actually defending the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II by saying "it was necessary." Nothing like minority outreach from Republicans, folks!

Donald Trump called the notion that Russians meddled in the 2016 election a "big Dem HOAX" and then went on to -- bizarrely -- state that Obama didn't do enough to stop it. It either exists or it doesn't, Donny... you can't have it both ways.

Trump now starts his day with a call with all his lawyers about the mounting Russia scandal. The idea is to allow him to "compartmentalize" this so it doesn't get in the way of the rest of his day. How's that going?

By the time the president arrives for work in the Oval Office, the thinking goes, he will no longer be consumed by the Russia probe that he complains hangs over his presidency like a darkening cloud. It rarely works, however. Asked whether the tactic was effective, one top White House adviser paused for several seconds and then just laughed.

And we'll close today with a few blasts from the past, mostly because they didn't fit into the Talking Points section at the end. Here is Mitch McConnell, from February of 2010, on the process Democrats were using to pass healthcare reform.

Democrats on Capitol Hill are working behind the scenes on a plan aimed at jamming this massive health spending bill through Congress against the clear wishes of an unsuspecting public. What they have in mind is a last-ditch legislative sleight-of-hand called reconciliation that would enable them to impose government-run health care for all on the American people, whether Americans want it or not.

Boy, those were the days, eh? Here's one more to keep handy, since there will quite likely be a few last-minute deals struck by McConnell over the course of the next week. From December of 2009:

Americans are right to be stunned -- because this bill is a mess. And so was the process that was used to get it over the finish line. Americans are outraged by the last-minute, closed-door, sweetheart deals that were made to gain the slimmest margin for passage of a bill that's about their health care.

 

Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week

We have two Honorable Mention awards this week, the first for Rhode Island's teacher of the year, Nikos Giannopoulis, who photobombed Donald Trump more successfully than anyone else has yet managed to do. Check out the photo to see why HuffPost wrote the headline: "Bold, Gay Teacher Of The Year Photo Bombs Donald Trump With Fan." Priceless!

The second Honorable Mention goes to all the disabled protesters who locked down Mitch McConnell's office yesterday, providing the evening news with film of cops trying to deal with protesters in wheelchairs. Visually, this was the perfect protest, really, and they are to be commended for their commitment and their impeccable timing.

But the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award goes to Senator Elizabeth Warren, for the speech she gave against the Republican healthcare bill. She does not, to put it mildly, mince words. Read the whole speech, it's a doozy (and it's not that long). Here are just a few highlights from it:

Today, we finally got a look at the monstrosity of a bill that Republicans have been hiding behind closed doors for weeks. Yes, it is finally clear how the Republicans were spending their time, locked in those back rooms.

Now we know the truth -- Senate Republicans weren't making the House bill better. Nope, not one bit. Instead, they were sitting around a conference room table, dreaming up even meaner ways to kick dirt in the face of the American people and take away their health insurance.

. . .

The Senate bill is crammed full with just as many tax cuts as the House bill. Tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, tax cuts for wealthy investors, tax cuts for giant companies. But all those tax cuts don't come cheap. They start to add up after a while. So Senate Republicans had to make a choice. How to pay for all these juicy tax cuts for their rich buddies?

I'll tell you how: blood money. Senate Republicans wrung some extra dollars out of kicking people off tax credits that help them afford health insurance. They raked in extra cash by letting states drop even more protections and benefits, like maternity care or prescription drug coverage or mental health treatment.

And then they got to the real piggy bank: Medicaid. And here they just went wild. Senate Republicans went after Medicaid with even deeper cuts than the House version. The Medicaid expansion? Gone -- ripped up and flushed down the toilet. And the rest of the Medicaid program? For Senate Republicans, it wasn't enough that the House bill was going to toss grandparents out of nursing homes or slash funding for people with disabilities or pull the plug on health care for babies born too soon. No. Senate Republicans wanted to go bigger.

. . .

Medicaid is the program in this country that provides health insurance to one in five Americans. To 30 million kids. To nearly two out of every three people in a nursing home. These cuts are blood money. People will die. Let's be very clear: Senate Republicans are paying for tax cuts for the wealthy with American lives.

. . .

Senate Republicans know exactly what they are doing with this health care bill. Their values are on full display. If they want to trade the health insurance of millions of Americans for tax cuts for the rich, they'd better be ready for a fight. Because now that this shameful bill is out in the open, that's exactly what they're going to get.

Well said! While Democrats everywhere are denouncing the meanness of the Republican bill, this is clearly the best framing of the issue to date. Because make no mistake about it, it is blood money -- and Democrats should forcefully point this out.

Because Elizabeth Warren showed them the best way to do so, within hours of the bill's release, she is easily our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week. Tell it like it is, Liz!

[Congratulate Senator Elizabeth Warren on her Senate contact page, to let her know you appreciate her efforts.]

 

Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week

We have two Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week awards to hand out, one literal and one visceral.

Jon Ossoff certainly disappointed more Democrats than anyone else this week, by running the most-expensive House race in American history and losing. He lost by almost four points, which was much worse than expected. Democrats would be riding a wave of enthusiasm right now if he had pulled out a victory, but since he didn't they are pretty despondent instead.

Ossoff reportedly started out his campaign strongly against Donald Trump, but later decided to dial all of that back and run as a guy who could reach across the aisle and get stuff done. This, to state the obvious, didn't work with the voters. Whether his campaign was mostly at fault for his loss or not will be endlessly debated in the coming months by Democrats. But what cannot be debated is the sheer volume of disappointment Ossoff's loss just caused. By literal interpretation, Jon Ossoff was indeed the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week.

But before we get to the second award, we have two minor awards to hand out as well. Both Michael Bloomberg and Johnny Depp deserve at least an (Dis-)Honorable Mention this week, for idiocy. In Bloomberg's case, it was for telling Democrats to just get behind Trump for the better of the country. Um, OK, Mike... sure.

Depp's case was a little more serious, since he made a joke about assassinating presidents. This is always to be condemned as strongly as possible, but since he's not a Democratic politician we didn't feel it rose to the level of the MDDOTW award.

Especially since there was an even-bigger example of inhumane political comments this week. Which is why the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week goes to Phil Montag, who used to be "the volunteer co-chair of the technology committee" for Nebraska Democrats. Used to be, because he just got fired, for saying the following about Republican Steve Scalise, who was shot at a baseball field recently: "I'm glad he got shot. I'm not going to fucking say that in public." When then asked why he was saying it anyway, Montag responded: "I wish he was fucking dead."

The response was swift, from Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb:

"As soon as I heard it, I sent it to the (party) officers and then sent an email to Phil Montag informing him I am removing him from his appointed position as Co-Chair of the Technology Committee," Kleeb told the [Omaha] World-Herald. "Wishing a Member of Congress or any individual dead is disgusting and has no place in our party."

Kleeb reported the conversation to law enforcement out of concern it was a genuine threat, she told the paper.

That is entirely the right response, we have to say. Nobody who would say something that odious belongs in the party leadership in any way, shape, or form. Period.

On his way out the door, we have to throw into that box of personal possessions a brand-new Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award.

[Both Jon Ossoff and Phil Montag are now nothing more than private citizens, and it is our blanket policy not to provide contact information for such persons, sorry. Besides, Ossoff is probably already getting an earful from plenty of other Democrats right about now.]

 

Friday Talking Points

Volume 442 (6/23/17)

Before we get to the awfulness of the Senate healthcare bill, we have to begin with two very funny tweets. Both transcend mere talking points and enter into the realm of downright laughable political humor. Apparently there was some strict interpretation of the dress code for women being enforced in Paul Ryan's office. Erica Werner tweeted her response:

Ladies of the House: there is a crackdown today on going sleeveless into the Speakers Lobby. Forewarned is forearmed as it were

Heh. That's pretty funny. But this effort was outdone by the response from Haley Byrd, which knocked it out of the park:

I thought @SpeakerRyan supported the right to bare arms

Well done! We doff our hats in salute to such excellent political humor.

One more amusing tweet deserves mention as well, as Matthew Yglesias beautifully bridged the gap between two Trump subjects this week:

Interestingly there ARE tapes of Donald Trump promising to cover everyone, cut deductibles, and lower premiums.

OK, all kidding aside, we're dedicating our whole Talking Points section to the Senate "take no prisoners" healthcare bill. We feel this is necessary, because if Mitch McConnell is to be believed, by this time next week the bill will already have been voted on. That's not much time to mount a resistance, which is (of course) the whole point of such an absurdly short schedule.

Some weeks we struggle to put together seven talking points. Not this week -- we had too many to choose from, in fact. AARP had a good talking point about how seniors' health costs would skyrocket (calling it an "age tax") but there were too many others to even include it this week. Democrats only have days to fight back against the GOP steamroller, so they'd better get busy, that's all we can say.

 

1
   The difference between the two bills

The Washington Post had a helpful column pointing out the differences between the House and Senate bills.

But in reality, the Senate bill will be at least as bad as the House bill over time. What we're really seeing here is an elaborate shell game: The Senate bill moves money around in a largely superficial way that enables Senate Republicans to vote for the same fundamental underlying policy priorities embedded in the House bill, while pretending not to. Here's the gist:

1. The House GOP bill gives the wealthy an enormous tax cut, financed (relative to current law) largely by hundreds of billions in cuts to health-care spending on poor people.

2. The Senate bill gives the wealthy an enormous tax cut, financed (relative to current law) largely by hundreds of billions in cuts to health-care spending on poor people.

 

2
   Dancing merrily

Alexandra Petri, also at the Post, was even snarkier. She wrote an entire article as a tongue-in-cheek plea to remember who the bill helps, and the dire circumstances for them if the bill were not to pass. We strongly recommend reading the entire article, because it is downright hilarious, in a gallows-humor sort of way.

Frankly, I think we are being unfair to the Senate version of the health-care bill. Too much time has already been spent on all the problems it creates -- for the indigent, the pregnant, the elderly, those who depend on Medicaid. But what about the problems it solves?

We are taking those too lightly, I feel. The Affordable Care Act placed a great burden on a great many people, and the Senate bill seeks to relieve their sacrifice.

Think of the families teetering at the steep pinnacle of the income distribution, wondering whether their finances will stretch to cover a lifesaving surgery for their purebred dressage horse. Thanks to the tax breaks this bill offers, they can rest assured that Dick Whittington Lord Mare Of London will get a replacement knee and continue to dance merrily over the course.

This is not just a tax break for the wealthy. It may well be the difference between life and death for countless sports cars and golf tourneys across America. Before, their money was wasted on dialysis for strangers who might possibly not even understand the finer points of badminton. Now that money is being restored, and it will go where it is most needed.

 

3
   $33 billion for 400 families

The credit for this statistic goes to Brandon DeBot at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

"An analysis of the Republican healthcare plan exposed a jaw-dropping fact. The 400 richest families in the entire country will get a tax break to the tune of $33 billion. This is exactly the same amount that Republicans are cutting in Medicaid funds from four entire states. Anyone who doubts that this bill is nothing short of taking money from the sick and the poor in order to hand over to those who least need it, just think about that statistic. $33 billion could give big tax cuts to 400 families, or pay for medical care for four United States. Republicans certainly aren't trying to hide their real priorities in life, are they? I guess those vaunted Republican 'family values' only applies to the top-earning families in America, eh?"

 

4
   More than just politics

The American people have weighed in already.

"Of course, we don't have public polling on the Senate bill, and we likely won't before the Senate votes on it. But the public's view of the House bill is getting worse as time goes by. Only 16 percent of all Americans think the House bill is 'a good deal.' A full 48 percent think it is 'a bad deal.' Even among Republicans, only 34 percent think the House bill is a good deal. Now, if Democrats didn't care about the disastrous effect this bill is going to have on millions upon millions of families, and if they only cared about how it would help them politically, they'd be cheering Republicans on. 'Go ahead, pass your bill,' they'd be telling Republicans, 'it's only going to make it that much easier to defeat you in the next election.' Mitch McConnell is only scheduling 20 hours of debate for the bill in the Senate, while the final Senate debate over Obamacare took 25 days. So Democrats spent more days in open debate than Republicans are going to spend hours. That's pretty stunning, but the American people have already weighed in. The Republican plan is massively unpopular, and it will only continue to get more unpopular as the public learns more and more about what is in it. No wonder they want to move so fast."

 

5
   Obama trolls Trump's meanness

President Obama weighed in this week as well, and he didn't mince words. He also showed how Democrats everywhere should use the word "mean" or "meanness" as much as possible in the coming debate, just to get under Donald Trump's skin.

Simply put, if there's a chance you might get sick, get old, or start a family -- this bill will do you harm. And small tweaks over the course of the next couple weeks, under the guise of making these bills easier to stomach, cannot change the fundamental meanness at the core of this legislation.

 

6
   Five, and counting...

Already, it looks like the bill may be in trouble within Republican ranks.

"Within hours of the Senate bill being released, four Republican senators went on the record as being against the bill. Since Mitch McConnell can only afford to lose two votes, this could be a problem. Or maybe not -- other than Rand Paul, it's hard to believe the other three will actually vote against the bill at the end of the day. The four state that the reason they can't support it is because they want the bill to be even meaner than it already is. So it's probably just posturing. But McConnell should be worried about the fifth Republican senator's stated reason for opposing the bill. Dean Heller of Nevada -- who is up for re-election next year -- voiced his concerns in a way that doesn't give him any wiggle room to change his mind later. On the drastic and deep cuts to Medicaid, Heller said: 'I cannot support a piece of legislation that takes away insurance from tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Nevadans.' That's pretty unequivocal, and it is impossible to fix by merely tweaking the bill next week. So if Heller and Paul are both solid 'no' votes, that means only one more Republican defection will kill the bill."

 

7
   Boehner put it best

We devoted a large portion of our FTP [429] column to what John Boehner (inaccurately) claimed Democrats were doing with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, back in the day. His words bear repeating once again, because they are so accurate when describing what Republicans are now doing. Boehner was visibly angry during this speech, screaming some of it at the top of his voice on the House floor.

No, today we're standing here looking at a health care bill that no one in this body believes is satisfactory. Today we stand here amidst the wreckage of what was once the respect and honor that this House was held in by our fellow citizens. And we all know why it is so. We have failed to listen to America. And we have failed to reflect the will of our constituents. And when we fail to reflect that will, we fail ourselves, and we fail our country.

. . .

[L]ook at how this bill was written. Can you say it was done openly, with transparency and accountability? Without backroom deals and struck behind closed doors hidden from the people? Hell, no, you can't!

Have you read the bill? Have you read the reconciliation bill? Have you read the manager's amendment? Hell, no, you haven't!

. . .

But what [Americans] see today frightens them. They're frightened because they don't know what comes next. They're disgusted because what they see is one political party closing out the other from what should be a national solution. And they're angry. They're angry that no matter how they engage in this debate, this body moves forward against their will.

Shame on us. Shame on this body. Shame on each and every one of you who substitutes your will and your desires above those of your fellow countrymen.

-- Chris Weigant

 

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Cross-posted at: The Huffington Post