Even for President Donald Trump, the past 24 hours have been tumultuous.
There was the court ruling that kept his most sweeping policy initiative (thus far) frozen. There was the ethical breach by a top aide who promoted Trump’s daughter’s products. There was a report that another top aide mischaracterized his contacts with the Russian ambassador. There was a reversal on Trump’s stated plans for Taiwan policy aimed at pleasing China. There was a report that Trump paused a call with Vladimir Putin because he didn’t know what a major nuclear arms treaty was. And there were Twitter attacks on two senators, including one Republican.
Trump’s own top-billed event of the day was a photo op in which he signed three basically toothless executive orders on crime. As German Lopez explains, all these orders do is create various “task forces” or demand plans be written to address various issues. That’s a classic politician trick to create the impression of bold action when what’s actually happening is not-so-bold punting. Still, better for the administration to take its time with major policy changes then to roll them out haphazardly.
The actual biggest policy news out of Thursday, then, was the ruling from a Ninth Circuit panel that kept President Trump’s refugee and visa ban — his most sweeping policy move yet — temporarily frozen.
The Ninth Circuit panel’s ruling used strikingly strong language to swat down the Trump administration’s claims that the judiciary had no authority to review his order. “There is no precedent to support this claimed unreviewability, which runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy,” the three-judge panel — which included one Republican appointee — wrote.
But it’s important to note that no court has yet ruled on the merits of the immigration order itself. All they have ruled on to this date is whether the order should be temporarily blocked while the court system susses out its legality.
SEE YOU IN COURT, THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 9, 2017
So when Trump tweets “SEE YOU IN COURT,” this is what he means — the real legal battle is still ahead. Dara Lind has more on what’s next, but the upshot is that even this one particular lawsuit is likely many months away from being resolved.
Foreign leader follies
Meanwhile, the steady stream of leaks involving Trump’s phone calls and meetings with foreign leaders and officials continued Thursday.
- When President Vladimir Putin of Russia brought up the New START nuclear arms treaty to Trump in a recent call, “Trump paused to ask his aides in an aside what the treaty was,” according to three sources cited by Jonathan Landay and David Rohde of Reuters. Once briefed, Trump quickly told Putin the treaty was a bad deal, and also “talked about his own popularity,” the authors write. (The Trump administration is now investigating this leak and other leaks of foreign leader conversations.)
- Remember when Trump said during the transition that the US doesn’t have to be “bound by a ‘one China policy’ (the diplomatic stance that Taiwan is part of China rather than an independent nation), and took a call from Taiwan’s leader? Xi Jinping does. The Chinese president refused to speak for Trump for months afterward, the New York Times’ Mark Landler and Michael Forsythe reported Thursday. However, Trump and Xi finally spoke Thursday night and Trump agreed to stick with the One China policy after all, which seems like a rather complete capitulation.
- Meanwhile, questions continue to swirl about National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador to the US during the transition. Flynn had denied, and continued to deny up to this week, that the two discussed then-President Obama’s expected sanctions against Russia that were a reprisal for Russian election-related email hacking. But the Washington Post reports that, according to “nine current and former US officials” speaking anonymously, “Flynn’s references to the election-related sanctions were explicit.” Two officials argue that Flynn in fact “urged Russia not to overreact” because Trump would soon be in office.
- Finally, yet another set of embarrassing leaks to Kylie Atwood and Brian Gottlieb of CBS News suggest that, per Mexican officials, Trump made last-minute changes to his speech announcing his executive order on building a wall in Mexico at the direct behest of the Mexican foreign minister, who was visiting. The report claims that senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner worked with the foreign minister to rewrite the speech to be more “positive,” and that Trump was annoyed but eventually agreed to read the new version. (The White House has denied this story.)
Kellyanne Conway in hot water
Meanwhile, a White House already dealing with a host of ethical controversies was suddenly handed a new one Thursday. In an appearance on Fox & Friends, senior counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway told the public to “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff.”
This is a follow-up to President Trump’s own ethically questionable complaints that Nordstrom was treating his daughter “unfairly” by dropping her fashion label (the company says they did so because the brand was selling poorly).
The problem is that, as Libby Nelson writes, “Federal employees in the executive branch, including Conway, aren’t allowed to ‘endorse any product, service or enterprise.’ The rules are strict.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer responded to the controversy during his Thursday press briefing by saying Conway has “been counseled, and that's all we're going to say.”
The president doesn’t seem particularly bothered by Conway’s promotion of his daughter’s branded products, though. Since nothing can ever come easy for the beleaguered Spicer, anonymous leaks soon indicated that Trump was unhappy with his statement. Per Politico:
A source familiar with the matter said Trump is fully backing Conway and does not agree with the “counseled” remark. This person said the president found it unfair "because it sounds like she has been reprimanded or needs counseling."
Yet even House Oversight Committee chair Jason Chaffetz, who dogged the Obama administration with investigations but has been notably reticent to criticize Trump so far, took ire at Conway’s comment, sending a letter calling what she did “wrong, wrong, wrong” and recommending the Office of Government Ethics look into disciplinary action. (Later that night, hundreds of people attended a Chaffetz town hall in his Utah district in which they chanted “do your job” at him.)
Twitter feuds with two US senators
Despite all this, Trump took time out of his day to personally tweet attacks on not one but two US senators, including one from his own party.
There’s been a lot of discussion on President Trump’s first major foreign operation, a strike in Yemen in which a member of SEAL Team 6 was killed. After a briefing on the mission earlier this week, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) characterized it as “a failure.”
But the Trump administration can’t admit anything was a failure, and has instead been sticking to the line that the operation was a success. So Sean Spicer pushed back against McCain in a press briefing, calling the mission “highly successful” and suggesting that anyone who said otherwise was insulting the memory of the dead American soldier.
Yet McCain fired back again, referring to his own Vietnam service in what was the Post called a “brutal rejoinder” to Spicer. That’s when the president seems to have become annoyed enough by this to weigh in personally:
Sen. McCain should not be talking about the success or failure of a mission to the media. Only emboldens the enemy! He's been losing so....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 9, 2017
...long he doesn't know how to win anymore, just look at the mess our country is in - bogged down in conflict all over the place. Our hero..— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 9, 2017
..Ryan died on a winning mission ( according to General Mattis), not a "failure." Time for the U.S. to get smart and start winning again!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 9, 2017
It seems unwise for the president to escalate a feud with a leading Senate committee chair from his own party who oversees the military and is highly interested in investigating Russia’s influence on US politics, but that is what Trump has done.
And that was just his second attack on a senator that morning. A bit earlier, Trump decided to respond to a report that his Supreme Court nominee had criticized his recent attacks on the judiciary in a private conversation with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). Though Gorsuch’s spokespeople had already confirmed the comments to multiple media outlets, Trump can’t stand to be criticized — so he responded here by, naturally, attacking Blumenthal and accusing him of lying:
Sen.Richard Blumenthal, who never fought in Vietnam when he said for years he had (major lie),now misrepresents what Judge Gorsuch told him?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 9, 2017
However, the comments seem pretty indisputable — Gorsuch’s own spokespeople confirmed them, and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) publicly said Gorsuch expressed similar sentiments to him in private. “He got a little bit emotional and he said that any attack, or any criticism, of his ‘brothers and sisters of the robe’ is an attack or a criticism on everybody wearing the robe as a judge,” Sasse said on the Senate floor.
Democrats smell a setup here. Many suspect Gorsuch has the White House’s full blessing and is distancing himself from Trump’s anti-judiciary tweets as part of a deliberate strategy to help his confirmation chances. “It was pre-planned, woefully insufficient, and the @WhiteHouse walked it back the next day. It will not work,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s communications director Matt House tweeted.
More Senate shenanigans, and the slow and painful process of Cabinet confirmations
Toward the middle of the day, Trump met with a bipartisan group of senators at the White House. Some of those senators emerged and proceeded to tell the press what was discussed. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) announced that Trump is now “committed” to the Export-Import Bank, which conservatives have been seeking to abolish and which Trump condemned during the campaign.
Manchin also claimed Trump said there was “a lot of merit” in the Senate’s 2013 “gang of eight” immigration reform bill. The Wall Street Journal’s Laura Meckler and Kristina Peterson report: “Mr. Trump asked for more information, one person said, and [Sen. Lamar] Alexander [R-TN] went into more depth on the Gang of Eight bill, with Democrats present praising it as the White House senior staff looked uncomfortable.” (Trump aides later said the president was only expressing general support for doing something on immigration.)
Meanwhile, the full Senate continued to move at a snail’s pace toward confirming Trump’s Cabinet. Just before 2 am, Tom Price won confirmation as Health and Human Services Secretary in yet another party-line vote — despite ethical questions stemming from reports that he bought and sold hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of shares in health care stocks while he worked on the issue in Congress. Price will now decide just what to make of Trump’s extremely vague executive order on dismantling Obamacare, and will help craft the administration’s own “repeal and replace” plan that we’ve been promised is coming.
Price is the seventh of Trump’s 15 nominees for the main Cabinet departments that have made it through Congress so far, so we haven’t even made it halfway yet. (Trump is supremely annoyed that his confirmations are taking so long.) Things are slow because Democrats, who no longer can actually block nominees with the filibuster, are responding by using parliamentary delay tactics and preventing even noncontroversial nominees from sailing through, as his been the norm for previous presidents. Next up is Treasury secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin, who’s also expected to be confirmed … despite questions about his own veracity in committee testimony.
So overall, things are going great.