Russia was back in the news this week thanks to some new revelations about old emails passed between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort. But it was also a busy week for good old-fashioned public policy, featuring a new health care overhaul draft from Senate Republicans, a new analysis of the president’s budget proposal, and America’s first big look at its likely next FBI director.
Here’s what you need to know to keep it all straight.
Senate Republicans released a new health bill
The latest edition of congressional Republicans’ plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act was released Thursday. It featured several large changes to the last Republican Senate bill while still retaining the main features and should still lead to a large increase in the number of uninsured people.
- What stays the same: Medicaid spending is handled in the exact same way as the previous iteration of the Better Care Reconciliation Act, first phasing out the ACA expansion and then cutting the program very deeply in subsequent years. Subsidies to buy plans on the individual marketplaces are scaled back, and in exchange insurers are allowed to sell skimpier plans with higher deductibles.
- What changes: The bill cuts taxes significantly less than the earlier legislation did, especially on very high-income households. Some of the money that frees up is plowed into opioid addiction treatment, but most of it goes into additional deficit reduction. In addition, the bill allows for the return of much more loosely regulated insurance plans outside of the exchange framework — plans that would bring back preexisting condition discrimination and other practices outlawed by the ACA.
- The road to 50 votes: The regulatory changes introduced in the new version of the bill mollify many of the conservative criticisms of the existing legislation, but a whole bunch of Republican senators had stated objections to the Medicaid cuts that are not addressed in any way by the new draft. Nevertheless, a number of firm “nos” on the old bill have now redefined themselves as “undecided,” and a lot hinges on what public pressure is (or isn’t) mounted over the next few days.
Donald Trump Jr. has a problem
Last weekend, it emerged that Donald Trump Jr. had a previously undisclosed meeting with a Russian attorney, Natalia Veselnitskaya. He explained first that it was about adoptions; then after further leaks, he admitted it was about gathering dirt on Hillary Clinton. Then after further leaks revealed he had been told, in advance, that the meeting was part of an official Russian government effort to help his father win the election, he admitted that was true but said nothing had actually come of it.
- Why it matters: This is smoking-gun proof that the Trump campaign, at the highest levels (Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner were also there), did not view collusion with the Russians as per se immoral or otherwise objectionable. That’s not proof of a crime, but it’s certainly important context for understanding the rest of the Trump-Russia story.
- Legal jeopardy: Experts say that even if Trump Jr.’s account of the meeting is entirely accurate, he seems to be confessing to violations of federal campaign finance law, which bars soliciting campaign assistance from foreigners. Depending on their knowledge of the situation, Manafort and Kushner could also be in trouble here.
- Do we believe Trump Jr.? A further question, of course, is whether Trump Jr.’s denial that anything of substance transpired at the meeting is credible. For months, he maintained that no contact with the Russians had taken place at all. When caught, he made several efforts to minimize what transpired in the meeting, only to “come clean” on a third try. He hasn’t testified under oath or provided full documentation of his communications. Maybe he’s lying again.
Christopher Wray is set to be the next FBI director
No vote has been scheduled yet, but after Wednesday’s confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Christopher Wray looks like a shoo-in to be confirmed as the next director of the FBI. He has a solid résumé for the job and enjoys unanimous Republican support, and most Democrats who’ve offered statements on the matter professed satisfaction with his answers at the hearings.
- Wray says he disagrees with Trump: In response to questions from Senate Democrats, Wray repeatedly disavowed Trumpy views on a range of subjects. He says Robert Mueller’s special counsel inquiry is not a “witch hunt,” that former FBI Director James Comey is not a “nut job,” that he agrees with intelligence assessments blaming Russia for election-related hacking, and that he is committed to maintaining independence from the White House.
- Independence isn’t in Wray’s hands: Taking Wray at his word, the crucial question remains the attitude of the White House. The president, as we have seen, has the legal authority to fire the FBI director whenever he wants. And congressional Republicans, as we have also seen, stand by Trump’s right to do so without real political consequences. In a practical sense, Wray is only as independent as other branches of government force Trump to allow him to be.
- What’s next? With Democrats satisfied by his answers, Wray is likely to be confirmed in the next few weeks. How he handles his relationship with the White House, with Congress, with Mueller, and with the media will likely determine whether the FBI’s traditional status as a quasi-independent agency continues or if it becomes just another presidential appointment. In the meantime, he also has to do the FBI’s routine law enforcement work in an era of rising crime.
The CBO scored Trump’s budget
On Thursday, the Congressional Budget Office released its official analysis of Donald Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 and came back with some bad news — contrary to Trump’s promises, his ideas would not in fact balance the budget within the 10-year scoring window.
- Why it matters: Presidents can (and usually do) propose budgets, but only Congress can actually write and pass one. And Congress needs to use CBO scores for budget-related matters. It can’t just rely on rosier forecasts from the executive branch. House Republicans are having troubling agreeing among themselves about what they want to do, and the CBO’s cold water doesn’t help matters.
- The CBO rejects MAGAnomics: The basic issue is that the Trump administration maintains its preferred policies would boost long-term GDP growth to 3 percent per year — close to the long-term average of postwar years. The CBO says that’s wrong because the underlying rate of population growth has slowed dramatically over the past generation, which mechanically implies slower growth.
- A larger battle to come: Trump and the CBO arguing about the budget is in many ways just an appetizer for a larger series of clashes. The CBO is going to score the Senate’s health care bill soon, with what are likely to be brutal numbers — the White House will want to argue that the CBO’s methods are unsound.