Following the failure of the Republican health reform effort last Friday, this was a week of regrouping for Donald Trump’s administration. A new White House chief of staff started his job and set about trying to bring some discipline to the place, reassuring some beleaguered advisers and showing others the door.
But already, new frustrations piled up. The Senate ignored the president’s exhortations to give the health bill another shot, and instead headed home, not to return until September. Before that, the president felt pressured to sign a Russia sanctions bill he didn’t like. And the week ended with reports that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had impaneled a grand jury to aid his investigation into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Here’s what you need to know.
Enter John Kelly, exit Anthony Scaramucci (and others)
The Trump administration tried to press the reset button this week by moving John Kelly, a retired general and the secretary of homeland security, over to the White House to be the new chief of staff.
And Kelly wasted no time in making his presence felt — one of the first things he did upon being sworn in was to tell Anthony Scaramucci, who had been named communications director just 10 days ago, that he was out.
- The Mooch’s ouster will restore some stability to the White House: Scaramucci’s recent hire to the communications post immediately raised eyebrows, since he came from the finance world and had never worked in press before. That was even before he was quoted going on a profane tirade berating some of his colleagues to a New Yorker reporter. But in the end, it turned out that the new chief of staff, a no-nonsense former general, did not want to have an unqualified person who acted unprofessionally in this important role. And rather than saving Scaramucci, President Trump acquiesced, and let Kelly dismiss him.
- Kelly also reportedly told Jeff Sessions his job was safe: Meanwhile, Kelly also seems to have brought the past few weeks’ drama over whether President Trump will fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions to a conclusion. According to an Associated Press report, the new chief of staff called Sessions “to stress that the White House was supportive of his work and wanted him to continue his job.” After that, the president stopped berating Sessions in tweets and press interviews.
- Trump loyalists are also being pushed out of the NSC: Meanwhile, there’s been some more interesting and potentially consequential personnel turnover at the National Security Council. HR McMaster, the more mainstream and establishment-friendly general who replaced Michael Flynn as national security adviser back in February, has long sought to oust certain Trump loyalist NSC staffers he considered too unqualified or extreme. Until recently, the White House has protected these staffers, but as Zack Beauchamp writes, several have finally been pushed out. These include Rich Higgins (a staffer who wrote a bizarre, conspiratorial memo positing an alliance between Islamists and “cultural Marxists”) and Ezra Cohen-Watnick (a 31-year old who was the top NSC intelligence staffer despite his lack of experience for the post).
Altogether, Kelly’s first round of changes have been well-received and have signaled a new atmosphere of increased professionalism in the White House. But of course, we don’t know just how long that will last.
The Trump/Russia investigation is headed to a grand jury
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is heating up. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Mueller has impaneled a grand jury in Washington, DC — an investigative step that will make it easier for him to subpoena records, get sworn witness testimony, and potentially issue indictments.
- What this actually means: The impanelment of a grand jury is yet another sign that the investigation into Russian collusion is big and serious — but it’s not clear if it means much more than that. My colleague Sean Illing surveyed 20 of the top law professors in the country, and many of them thought this was the expected and mostly inevitable next stage in an investigation we already knew to be quite serious. It certainly doesn’t necessarily mean indictments are imminent or even coming at all. But as yet another sign that the investigation has teeth, it may make it politically tougher yet for Trump to fire Mueller, as he has reportedly mused about doing.
- The FBI versus the president? Before news of the grand jury broke, Murray Waas reported for Vox that, according to two senior law enforcement officials, several top FBI officials had been told by acting director Andrew McCabe that “they should consider themselves possible witnesses in any investigation into whether President Donald Trump engaged in obstruction of justice.”
- Tougher Russia sanctions were signed into law: Meanwhile, on the Russia policy front, Congress overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill toughening sanctions on the country. President Trump had no real option but to sign it, since a veto override would have been certain — but he also issued a signing statement criticizing the bill as “significantly flawed,” and complained on Twitter that Congress had brought “our relationship with Russia” to “an all-time & very dangerous low.”
The health care bill is dead for the foreseeable future
The US Senate left for the summer on Thursday, meaning that Republican leaders have spurned President Trump’s demands that they make another attempt at passing a bill. They could still change their minds after Congress returns in September, but with members out of town it seems clear the bill won’t be resurrected before then. And in contrast to what happened when the House of Representatives first failed to pass their health bill (they tried again and succeeded a few weeks later), there are a few reasons it will be much harder for the Senate to pull that off.
- The health bill could still, theoretically, come back: First of all, do keep in mind that it is still possible for Republicans to bring the health bill back when they return in September. The decisive vote they lost at the end of last week was for an amendment for their bill, not the underlying bill itself. Theoretically, if they manage to flip just one of the three GOP senators who voted no, they can pass something.
- But they might not have too much longer: It is possible, though, that Senate rules will force some finality here. That’s because Republicans wanted to use the special “budget reconciliation” process — which lets Senate bills bypass a filibuster and advance with just majority support — for both health reform and tax reform. Their problem is that most experts seem to think they can’t do both at once. There’s some dispute over just what the implications of the rules are, and a helpful explainer by Vox’s Dylan Matthews lays out a few ways they can be interpreted. But the consensus view seems to be that if Republicans set up budget reconciliation for tax reform (as they hope to do soon), they’ll lose their shot to use it for health reform. And that means that they won’t be able to pass a health bill without Democratic votes.
- Furthermore, Congress has a full plate in September: Another problem for the GOP is that the federal government is careening toward two very important deadlines. First, they have to pass legislation funding the government by the end of September or they’ll face a shutdown. Second, they have to raise the debt ceiling, or else the government will default on its debt. Negotiations over these two tasks could well eat up most of September. So while anything could happen, it’s difficult to envision the Senate taking another run at health care unless there’s a truly surprising and dramatic development of some sort.
- And the administration is shifting gears: Meanwhile, Trump’s team has begun to increasingly emphasize other topics in its public messaging — like immigration. The White House announced that it would back the RAISE Act, which would slash legal immigration levels, and aide Stephen Miller defended the bill in a confrontational press briefing appearance. As Vox’s Tara Golshan explains, the bill is likely headed nowhere, because it can’t beat a filibuster in the Senate. Still, it’s a reminder that immigration restrictionism has always been one of the leading features of Trumpism — and administration appointees are continuing to pursue that agenda through the executive branch.