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We've lost sight of how appalling Trump's "Obama tapped my phones" accusation is

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

In the day-to-day crush of news, it’s easy to lose perspective. And this year especially, it’s easy for the abnormal to become normal.

So let’s be clear: If President Trump truly does have no evidence to back up his accusation that President Obama tapped his phones — as increasingly seems to be the case — he has viciously slandered his predecessor with a bogus accusation.

On Thursday, several top Republicans in Congress came out to publicly contradict President Trump’s claim that the former president tapped Trump Tower’s phones:

  • “I don’t think there was an actual tap of Trump Tower,” said House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-CA), usually a strong Trump defender.
  • “We see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr in a joint statement with his Democratic counterpart.
  • “No such wiretap existed,” said Speaker Paul Ryan.

But at the White House press briefing later that day, press secretary Sean Spicer reiterated that President Trump “stands by” his accusations, and spent several minutes reading excerpts from articles and TV segments that he claimed backed up the wild allegations.

In digging in to defend Trump’s seemingly indefensible comments, Spicer managed to get the White House into even more trouble. He reportedly infuriated the British government by quoting a sketchy-sounding Fox News segment that reported Obama used British spies to tap Trump’s phones.

The Brits have strongly denied this, and CNN now reports that the White House has already privately apologized to the UK for citing the segment. (Update: US officials are now telling BuzzFeed News there was no apology, but there appears to have been a “smoothing over” conversation of some kind.)

In many ways, it’s comforting that the political system has adjusted to Donald Trump’s unusual personality and temperament. Where many used to hang on the president’s every word, now most just avert their eyes when he says something particularly out there. Foreign leaders seem to have realized that the US president’s statements aren’t credible. Even Trump’s allies now advise not to take him “literally.”

But let’s keep in mind what the president admitted in this week’s interview with Tucker Carlson: Trump was accusing Obama of a “Nixon/Watergate” scandal not because he got a government briefing of some kind, but because of a Fox News segment that was citing a Breitbart article that itself was relying on a report from the website “HeatStreet.”

“If you watched the Bret Baier [segment on Fox] and what he was saying and what he was talking about and how he mentioned the word wiretap, you would feel very confident that you could mention the name,” Trump said.

This is absurd. It’s also appalling. Not even two months into this presidency, we’ve attuned ourselves to the appalling. Statements that would have caused a major scandal now barely raise an eyebrow.

Elsewhere in the news: What you need to know about Trump’s budget outline

Thursday’s top policy news was the release of a budget outline laying out the Trump administration’s priorities for discretionary spending. (The full budget is coming later, in May.)

Even in an ordinary year, the budget tends not to mean all that much. It’s a proposal from the president that Congress gleefully adjusts or ignores as it sees fit, both by amending the budget resolution and overriding it later in separate spending bills (which will need 60 Senate votes, and therefore some Democratic support, to beat a filibuster).

So the budget isn’t important because these cuts will actually happen, but rather because it is a window into the priorities and preferences of the Trump administration. And what we’ve learned about those priorities is:

  • Trump and his team want to utterly gut the Environmental Protection Agency (31 percent proposed cut), the State Department (28 percent proposed cut), Labor (21 percent), and Agriculture (21 percent).
  • They’re only comfortable requesting actual spending increases for Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs.
  • They’d be perfectly happy if several programs for the poor — like the Community Services Block Grant, the Community Development Block Grant (which helps fund Meals on Wheels), the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance program — dropped off the face of the earth.

The reception on Capitol Hill has been brutal — even leading Republicans don’t think Trump’s team made an effort to craft something even remotely plausible. “I don't think we'd get 50 votes for it,” a top House Republican told Politico’s John Bresnahan, Sarah Ferris, and Jennifer Scholtes.

“It’s a joke,” a senior aide to congressional Republican leaders told the New York Times’s Glenn Thrush. “We’ve learned not to listen to anything he says or does. We’re on our own.”

So this year’s budget is even deader than usual.

Health reform watch

The latest: We saw the first formal signs of Republican dissent against the American Health Care Act on Thursday, as three GOP Congress members voted no on reporting the bill out of the Budget Committee (all opposing the bill from the right). Other Republicans said they were only voting yes to move the process along, and expected major changes before a floor vote.

What comes next: Speaker Ryan now has to try to deliver those major changes. He’s crafting a “manager’s amendment” that will overhaul the bill before a floor vote, and faces the difficult task of satisfying both the Freedom Caucus (which wants deeper cuts) and the Coverage Caucus (which is worried about millions losing coverage), and hopefully improve the bill’s Congressional Budget Office score.

Tax reform watch

The latest: Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), chair of the Senate Finance committee, signaled he is not at all interested in a border adjustment provision, which has been the centerpiece of many Republican tax reform proposals. Jenny Leonard of Inside Trade reports that Hatch has no plans to hold a hearing on the topic, and told her “I don’t think it’s gonna be” part of tax reform.

What it means: Top House Republicans thought the border adjustment (or the DBCFT) would be a convenient way to raise revenue and pay for tax cuts elsewhere, while also fitting with the Trump administration’s talking points. They also thought it would be relatively painless, since many economists predict the dollar would adjust to make up for the hit.

But retailers and importers aren’t buying it, and are lobbying furiously against it. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) has loudly condemned the idea; Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has said he doesn’t think there are even 10 votes for it in the Senate. So Republicans may have to head back to the drawing board on their big tax bill.

Stat of the day

7.4 million. That’s how many US households got money to help pay for heating bills from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance program (LIHEAP) — a program Trump’s budget proposes eliminating entirely — in fiscal year 2009, according to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report.

Members of Congress in cold areas hear a lot about LIHEAP from their constituents, and the program is heavily used in Midwestern states that swung to Trump in the 2016 election. So the proposal to eliminate the program is a curious move that could conceivably come back to haunt the president. It is, however, very unlikely to pass Congress (partly because of the blizzard of constituent calls that are sure to come in).

Eyebrow raiser

Washington Post reporter Ed O’Keefe reports that Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) “screamed” at him that the Justice Department and FBI weren’t answering his questions about Russia-related investigations into Trump associates. Here’s what Grassley said, per the Washington Post:

“It doesn’t matter whether you have a Republican or Democrat president, every time they come up here for their nomination hearing. ... I ask them, ‘Are you going to answer phone calls and our letters, and are you going to give us the documents we want?’ And every time we get a real positive ‘yes’! And then they end up being liars!”

It’s not exactly clear what is going on here, but this is certainly an odd way to treat a key Senate Republican committee chair who oversees the Justice Department. FBI Director James Comey is set to testify at a public House Intelligence Committee Monday, so keep an eye on that.

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