Donald Trump's presidency has reached a new level of chaos, somehow.
Last night, CNN reported that the FBI “has information that indicates” Trump’s associates communicated with Russian operatives, “possibly” to coordinate the release of information damaging to his opponent’s campaign.
That’s just days after the FBI director revealed, in congressional testimony, that he was investigating whether the president’s associates colluded with Russia to interfere with last year’s election — publicly confirming something we knew of only from anonymously sourced news reports.
Meanwhile, House Republicans are continuing to barrel toward a Thursday vote on a comprehensive health reform bill that was crafted in secret and released just weeks ago. They don’t yet have the votes, but are desperately trying to win over enough wavering conservatives and moderates to ram this bill through — which could have immense consequences for millions of Americans.
As all this continues to unfold, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee is claiming that US intelligence agencies in the previous administration intercepted some communications of people involved in the president-elect’s transition.
And somehow, the president’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, continues to sail toward confirmation, with some Senate Democrats reportedly weighing some sort of deal with Republicans to let him through. Gorsuch is young enough that he could conceivably sit on the Court for decades and be one of Trump’s most important legacies.
So there’s a lot going on. Here’s the context you need to understand what’s new and important on each of these topics.
The FBI investigation revelation
The background: Before this week, the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was a shadowy thing. There had been many anonymously sourced news reports asserting that such an investigation existed and that it may be looking at some of Trump’s associates. But some of those reports conflicted on the question of how serious the investigation was. There was no public confirmation. It was hard to tell whether all this really amounted to anything.
Then on Monday, FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress that the bureau was in fact “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts” to interfere with the 2016 election. This confirmed that the investigation was a) real, and b) looking squarely at the Trump campaign and its associates.
The news: On Wednesday night, we learned more on just what, exactly, has caught the FBI’s interest. According to a bombshell CNN report, the bureau “has information that indicates” Trump associates “communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton's campaign.”
This information “includes human intelligence, travel, business and phone records and accounts of in-person meetings,” per anonymous US officials interviewed by CNN.
Why it matters: This is a step beyond any claim we’ve seen before about the investigation. Previous reports suggested the FBI was looking at the general topic of Trump associate contacts with Russia, but it wasn’t really clear whether they had found much of substance. But this story claims they do have at least some information suggesting there was shady communication and coordination afoot (though the story cautions this information isn’t “conclusive”).
Furthermore, when the story discusses “information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign,” it’s almost surely referring to the hacked email dumps that dogged Democrats last year — most prominently, the public releases of internal Democratic National Committee emails in July and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s emails in October by WikiLeaks. (US intelligence agencies have attributed these hacks to Russian-aligned actors.)
Though these email dumps likely didn’t swing the outcome of the election (there’s a better case that Comey’s letter on Clinton emails did), they did seem extremely well-timed for Trump. The DNC emails were released just in time to cause tension between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention. Podesta’s emails came out as an “October surprise” when Trump was trailing badly in the polls. Did Trump’s campaign or his associates have a role in this timing? That is, apparently, what the FBI is looking into.
The health care fight in the House
The background: House Republican leaders are struggling to come up with the votes to pass the American Health Care Act, their bill to repeal and replace Obamacare.
The bill’s final form still appears to be in flux, but among other things it would replace Obamacare’s income-adjusted subsidies to buy insurance on individual marketplaces with a flat and overall less generous tax credit. It would overhaul and dramatically cut Medicaid. And it would slash some taxes that only hit the wealthy. The Congressional Budget Office estimated its enactment would lead to 24 million more people becoming uninsured by 2026.
Republicans have had a tough time coming up with the votes, because they’re trying to appease two groups with very different demands.
- Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus have long and loudly condemned the bill for keeping too much of Obamacare in place. They’re backed by anti-government-spending groups including Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, and the Koch brothers’ Freedom Partners.
- Other Republicans (I call them the Coverage Caucus) have more gradually come out against the bill because they fear it would negatively impact their constituents. They’re backed by the AARP, the American Hospital Association, and other groups.
Since no Democrats are expected to back the effort in the House, Paul Ryan can only afford to lose 22 Republicans — or else the bill would fail.
The news: In an attempt to win over enough Freedom Caucus members, Republican leaders are considering major changes to the health bill. These changes reportedly include dropping the “essential health benefits” requirement which lays out 10 benefits insurance plans for the individual markets or offered by small businesses must cover. As Dylan Matthews explains:
These provisions set a baseline, mandating that all offered plans meet a certain threshold. They can't skimp out and not cover big things like emergency room visits or pregnancy or mental health. Particularly for previously undercovered areas like mental health and addiction services, which plans didn't have to cover before the ACA, this provision was a huge deal.
But many free market conservatives hate this provision, because it runs counter to the goal of having wide consumer choice among different kinds of health plans offering different types of procedures. They note that this drives up the cost of insurance, and insist that people should have the chance to buy less protective plans that are cheaper.
President Trump will meet with Freedom Caucus members Thursday morning to try to cut this deal, but it’s unclear whether this will prove so controversial that it drives away many more members of the Coverage Caucus.
Why it matters: Well, in addition to potentially affecting (or ending) millions of people’s health coverage, the outcome of these negotiations could determine whether this bill passes the House or fails — though it should be noted that the AHCA will face towering difficulties getting through the Senate, considering it’s been trashed by so many Republican senators.
The wiretapping drama
The background: Back on March 3, President Trump sent out a series of early-morning tweets claiming, with no evidence, that Barack Obama wiretapped his phones at Trump Tower back during the presidential campaign. It eventually emerged that Trump’s apparent source was a sketchily sourced article from a right-wing news site that had been read out on television.
The claims, it now seems clear, were false. Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers both bluntly rebutted them in their congressional testimony Monday, saying they’d seen no information to back up Trump’s tweets. Leading Republicans in Congress briefed by the intelligence agencies also said they’d heard nothing to back up Trump’s accusations.
But while the Obama-ordered tap of Donald Trump at Trump Tower clearly seems not to exist, it is quite plausible that some of Trump’s aides or associates were being monitored — perhaps because of that pesky FBI investigation into their contacts with Russia — or that their communications were picked up because foreigners communicating with them were themselves being tapped.
The news: On Wednesday, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, held a surprise press conference in which he claimed to have new wiretapping news.
“On numerous occasions, the intelligence community incidentally collected information about US citizens involved in the Trump transition,” Nunes said.
Shortly afterward, President Trump claimed that he had been “somewhat” vindicated by Nunes’s announcement. “So that means I’m right,” he proclaimed in a Time interview with Michael Scherer.
What it means: It does not mean Trump was right. Looking at the specific words Nunes used, what seems to have happened is that “the US intelligence community, during legally authorized surveillance of foreign nationals, picked up communications between members of Trump’s campaign” and some foreign nationals, as Zack Beauchamp writes.
That is, the foreigners talking to Trump’s people were tapped, not Trump’s people themselves.
Now, Nunes also raised questions about whether the information picked up in those taps was too “widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting” considering its actual value, which is a separate matter.
But there are questions about Nunes’s conduct too. He’s tasked with leading the House’s investigation on this matter, so it’s unclear why, when informed of this, he went public so quickly, why he didn’t tell his House Democratic counterpart, and why he went off to the White House to talk to Trump about an investigation that may implicate his associates. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) called this “very disturbing” behavior that compromised Nunes’s “credibility.”
Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing
The background: Rather than going outside the box for his Supreme Court choice, Trump picked Neil Gorsuch, a circuit judge well respected in the conservative legal community. Gorsuch appears to have support from a majority of senators, so the main political drama with his hearing is whether Democrats try to filibuster his nomination. If they do so, Republicans are expected to change Senate rules to ram him through.
The news: Gorsuch finished 20 hours of Senate testimony yesterday, and the New York Times has a rundown of what Gorsuch said here — essentially, he was really vague, and nothing stood out as a major gaffe or revelation.
The real news was that, per Politico’s Burgess Everett, some Democratic senators are considering trying to cut some kind of deal with Republicans to let Gorsuch through without a Senate rules change. What they’d hope to get in exchange is a commitment that Republicans wouldn’t change the rules to ram through any other Supreme Court nominations in Trump’s term.
Why it matters: Though important, Gorsuch’s nomination would restore the Supreme Court to its status quo as it existed before Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016. That’s something many Democrats feel they can live with.
But if Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or Stephen Breyer were to step down or die during Trump’s presidency, the next justice could move the Court sharply to the right if confirmed — putting liberal precedents like Roe v. Wade at stake. So some Democrats are hoping to do whatever they can to try to ensure a more mainstream nominee gets picked for the next vacancy, even if it means letting Gorsuch through.
Still, the idea of letting Trump’s Supreme Court nominee through may prove too much for the liberal base to bear, particularly after Republicans refused to even consider President Obama’s nominee for this very seat, Merrick Garland. So this could get messy.