President Donald Trump’s travel ban has been blocked in court. His health care bill went down in flames last week. He’s dogged by investigations of his associates’ ties to Russia. And he is stunningly, historically unpopular for a president who’s been in office for a mere two months.
Naturally, then, he’s looking for someone not named Donald Trump to blame.
On Thursday morning, he pointed to two such someones on his Twitter account: the House Freedom Caucus and the New York Times:
The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 30, 2017
As now happens frequently, political observers began debating whether Trump’s tweets here are part of a deliberate strategy of some kind, or whether they’re primarily an impulsive expression of rage. The answer is probably a little of both.
Why Trump is going to war with the Freedom Caucus
The failure of the American Health Care Act has many fathers. There’s House Speaker Paul Ryan, who wrote a remarkably unpopular bill. There’s Trump and his own staffers, who bungled negotiations. There’s the “Coverage Caucus,” the Republicans who abandoned the bill due to fears that their constituents would lose their insurance.
Finally there’s the Freedom Caucus, which demanded the bill roll back more of Obamacare and refused to come along when it didn’t.
Trump’s tweet makes it clear that he’s singling out the Freedom Caucus and only the Freedom Caucus for blame. That isn’t really accurate or fair, but it does make at least some sense for the administration’s bigger strategy.
The Freedom Caucus isn’t just a problem for health care. As long as its members remain a holdout bloc making their support conditional on the granting of legislatively unworkable demands, House Republicans will have a great deal of trouble passing anything of consequence.
Furthermore, since Trump remains quite popular in the deeply conservative districts represented by Freedom Caucus members, he could have some leverage over them — or at least more leverage than he’d have over Ryan or moderates who represent districts where Trump is unpopular.
Trump, therefore, wants to break the Freedom Caucus’s power. Comments today from Rep. Chris Collins (the president’s closest ally in the House) and an anonymous White House aide make it clear this is a coordinated strategy. Republicans want to give the Freedom Caucus the cold shoulder in negotiations, and make them sweat about possible Trumpist primary challenges:
GOP NY Rep Collins on what should happen if Freedom Caucus reaches out to moderate GOPers:— Chad Pergram (@ChadPergram) March 30, 2017
Next time one of those calls come in, hang up
"There’s nothing as clarifying as the smell of AF1 jet fuel” says a WH official, when asked if Trump may support HFC primary challenges— Robert Costa (@costareports) March 30, 2017
Indeed, by going after the Freedom Caucus, Trump has effectively allied himself with Republican leaders who have long viewed the group as a thorn in their side. Former Ted Cruz campaign aide Jason Johnson argues on Twitter that what’s happening is “the DC Establishment’s attempt to use Pres Trump to finish a war that began long before.”
This strategy could, of course, backfire. Freedom Caucus member Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) has already made clear he’ll remain defiant. But the hard-line conservatives isn’t a monolith, and some of its members could make different calculations (Texas Rep. Ted Poe has already resigned from the group over disagreement with its approach to the health fight) — particularly if GOP leadership makes clear that if they continue to hold out, they’ll simply work with Democrats.
Trump’s “libel law” tweet is a sideshow now — but could be worrying in a different political environment
The president’s angry tweet at the New York Times, while perhaps impulsive, also fits into his administration’s larger strategy of demonizing the press — the press that has, of course, been very critical of him and reported a great many unflattering stories about his administration.
I’ve written a fair amount about how the Trump White House needs an enemy and, with its attacks on “fake news,” decided to make the media that enemy. (Even back in the first week of the administration, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon was calling the media “the opposition party” and saying it was Trump’s most important foe.)
Trump’s suggestion that the US should “change libel laws” isn’t new either — he promised to “open our up libel laws” back during the campaign. But it certainly sounds much more ominous coming from someone who’s now president, and who often seems to make little distinction between press coverage that is in fact untrue and press coverage he simply doesn’t like. (“The leaks are absolutely real, the news is fake,” he bizarrely claimed last month.)
“Comparative experience shows that would-be autocrats find it critical first to control the public narrative, often by directly attacking or intimidating the press,” Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg wrote recently. “Libel suits — Putin notably recriminalized libel, after it had been decriminalized in 2011 under Dmitry Medvedev — drummed-up prosecutions, and vise-like media regulation accomplish the same ends.”
In the current political environment, Trump’s “libel laws” remark is a tossed-off sideshow, certain to go nowhere in Congress (even if he could somehow get practically every Republican to pass something or other, surely the eight Democrats needed to beat a Senate filibuster wouldn’t go along).
Still, political environments can change. What’s more worrying is how these illiberal tendencies of Trump might play out in a moment of major national security crisis — say, after a terrorist attack.
The irony of all this, of course, is that Trump seems to care deeply what the New York Times has to say. When the health bill collapsed last Friday, Trump very quickly called the paper’s Maggie Haberman to put out his preferred narrative of what happened. But he’s been quite clear that he’d rather not have to do that at all.
Russia watch: Senate investigators speak
Our daily politics news roundup will check in on several other big stories, so here’s a look at what else is in the news.
Nobody was fully sure what to expect when the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr and Mark Warner, briefed the press on their investigation into Trump and Russia on Wednesday afternoon. Their counterpart investigation on the House side, led by Rep. Devin Nunes, has bungled things so completely that it wasn’t clear if anyone in Congress could conduct a credible probe into Trump’s Russian ties.
We won't know the answer for months, but Burr and Warner seem to be going out of their way to show that it’s possible. Burr, the Republican, refused to rule out in advance that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia: “We’d be crazy to draw conclusions from where we are in the investigation.” He went further, refusing to rule out the possibility that Trump was personally involved with the Russians: “We know that our challenge is to answer that question to the American people.”
He also said they would interview 20 witnesses, including Jared Kushner, and planned to review literally every pertinent intelligence community document (and had already looked over most of them).
From the outset, then, this looks like a much more bipartisan and credible investigation than the partisan slapdashery on the House side, where Nunes recently brought the probe to an indefinite pause and is widely seen as wrongly trying to protect the Trump administration rather than investigate it.
It also seems to have real support among Senate Republicans: Bob Corker, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Vox that he thought the investigation was making good progress and obviated the need for any kind of specially appointed investigative committee.
“I believe the committee’s work is moving ahead in an appropriate manner, and at this time I do not believe a select committee is needed,” Corker said.
Obviously, the proof will be in the pudding (that is, the hearings and final report). But if the Senate investigation starts looking like the kind of whitewash that the House investigation appears to be, you can bet Senate Democrats will raise a stink. The fact that they aren’t right now is telling — and, for Trump, probably somewhat worrying.
Today’s top politics reads
- “Trump Said to Ease Combat Rules in Somalia Intended to Protect Civilians”: “President Trump has relaxed some of the rules for preventing civilian casualties when the American military carries out counterterrorism strikes in Somalia, laying the groundwork for an escalating campaign against Islamist militants in the Horn of Africa. The decision, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations, gives commanders at the United States Africa Command greater latitude to carry out offensive airstrikes and raids by ground troops against militants with the Qaeda-linked Islamist group Shabab. That sets the stage for an intensified pace of combat there, while increasing the risk that American forces could kill civilians.” —New York Times, Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt
- “Ryan: Trump was 'very apologetic' for promoting Fox show that called on me to resign”: “‘He actually was very apologetic,’ Ryan said on ‘CBS This Morning’ about Trump's endorsement of the program, during which Pirro also said Trump was not to blame for the American Health Care Act's failure. ‘He said, “I had no idea she was going to talk about that. I thought she was going to talk about something else.” So, really, it was completely coincidental.’” —Politico, Kelsey Sutton
- “Trump just lost his best chance to avoid a Supreme Court battle over the travel ban”: “The Trump administration seemingly can’t win the court battle over its attempt to temporarily ban all refugees and people from six majority-Muslim countries from entering the US. On Wednesday night, Judge Derrick K. Watson of the District of Hawaii (part of the Ninth Circuit) extended his temporary hold on the ban into a preliminary injunction — putting the executive order on ice until the court case is fully resolved.” —Vox, Dara Lind
- “The Crisis of Trumpism”: “No officeholder in Washington seems to understand President Donald Trump’s populism or have a cogent theory of how to effect it in practice, including the president himself. House Speaker Paul Ryan isn’t a populist and doesn’t want to be a populist. ... Trump, for his part, has lacked the knowledge, focus or interest to translate his populism into legislative form.” —Politico Magazine, Rich Lowry