With Breanne Deppisch
THE BIG IDEA: Reading some of the news coverage this weekend, one might get the impression that Donald Trump’s failure to repeal Obamacare is akin to Woodrow Wilson not getting the League of Nations ratified. In other words, a fatal blow to his presidency. That’s hooey.
— Health care is a siren song that has seduced many presidents since Harry Truman called for a national insurance program in 1945. Bill Clinton, for instance, spent far more political capital on the issue than Trump during his first year as president. His party also controlled both chambers of Congress, and he too failed spectacularly. But Clinton bounced back and won reelection.
— Liberals mock Trump as ineffective at their own peril. Yes, it’s easy to joke about how Trump said during the campaign that he’d win so much people would get tired of winning. Both of his travel bans have been blocked – for now. An active FBI investigation into his associates is a big gray cloud over the White House. The president himself falsely accused his predecessor of wiretapping him. His first national security adviser registered as a foreign agent after being fired for not being honest about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. His attorney general, at best, misled Congress under oath.
— Despite the chaos and the growing credibility gap, Trump is systematically succeeding in his quest to “deconstruct the administrative state,” as his chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon puts it. He’s pursued the most aggressive regulatory rollback since Ronald Reagan, especially on environmental issues, with a series of bills and executive orders. He’s placed devoted ideologues into perches from which they can stop aggressively enforcing laws that conservatives don’t like. By not filling certain posts, he’s ensuring that certain government functions will simply not be performed. His budget proposal spotlighted his desire to make as much of the federal bureaucracy as possible wither on the vine.
— Trump has been using executive orders to tie the hands of rule makers. He put in place a regulatory freeze during his first hours, mandated that two regulations be repealed for every new one that goes on the books and ordered a top-to-bottom review of the government with an eye toward shrinking it.
Any day now, Trump is expected to sign an executive order aimed at undoing Obama’s Clean Power Plan and end a moratorium on federal-land coal mining. This would ensure that the U.S. does not meet its commitments under the Paris climate agreement.
The administration is also preparing new executive orders to re-examine all 14 U.S. free trade agreements, including NAFTA, and the president could start to sign some of them this week.
— Trump plans to unveil a new White House office today with sweeping authority to overhaul the federal bureaucracy and, potentially, privatize some government functions. “The Office of American Innovation, to be led by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, will operate as its own nimble power center within the West Wing and will report directly to Trump,” Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker report. “Viewed internally as a SWAT team of strategic consultants, the office will be staffed by former business executives and is designed to … create a lasting legacy for a president still searching for signature achievements. … Kushner’s team is being formalized just as the Trump administration is proposing sweeping budget cuts across many departments, and members said they would help find efficiencies.”
Kushner’s ambitions are grand: “At least to start, the team plans to focus its attention on re-imagining Veterans Affairs; modernizing the technology and data infrastructure of every federal department and agency; remodeling workforce-training programs; and developing ‘transformative projects’ under the banner of Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan, such as providing broadband Internet service to every American. In some cases, the office could direct that government functions be privatized, or that existing contracts be awarded to new bidders.”
— The Congressional Review Act had only been used once since it passed in 1996 to get rid of a regulation.
Trump has already used it three times since February to kill regulations put into effect by the Obama administration: He eliminated the Interior Department’s stream protection rule, which barred coal-mining companies from conducting any activities that could permanently pollute streams and other sources of drinking water. He killed an SEC rule requiring oil and mining companies to disclose payments to foreign governments. And he made it easier for the mentally ill to get guns by blocking the Social Security Administration from turning over certain data to the FBI.
Seven more bills to undo Obama regulations have passed both chambers of Congress and will soon be signed by the president. Among them: Rolling back worker safety regulations to track and reduce workplace injuries and deaths, reducing disclosure requirements for federal contractors and abolishing a rule that restricted certain kinds of hunting, such as trapping and aerial shooting, inside national wildlife refuges in Alaska.
Several more are in the pipeline. The Republican Senate last Thursday voted to repeal rules aimed at protecting consumers’ online data from Internet providers. Once the House passes the measure, and the president signs it, it will be vastly easier for broadband companies to sell and share your personal usage information for advertising purposes. (Juliet Eilperin and Darla Cameron created a graphic to show all the ways Trump has rolled back Obama’s rules. Check it out here.)
— He can’t pass legislation to repeal Obamacare, but Trump is weakening the pillars of the health care system from the inside so that he can blame Democrats for future problems. Although Paul Ryan acknowledged Friday that “Obamacare is the law of the land,” its survival or collapse in practical terms now rests with decisions that are in the president’s hands.
On his first night in office, the president directed federal agencies to ease the regulatory burden that the ACA has placed on consumers, the health-care industry and health-care providers. “So far, the main action stemming from that directive is a move by the Internal Revenue Service to process Americans’ tax refunds even if they fail to submit proof that they are insured, as the ACA requires,” Amy Goldstein and Juliet Eilperin explain.
There are other steps the administration could take: “A major one would be to end cost-sharing subsidies the law provides to lower- and middle-income people with marketplace plans to help pay their deductibles and co-pays,” Amy and Juliet note. “Another question is how the administration will handle the next enrollment season for ACA health plans, which will begin in November. The end of the most recent season coincided with Trump’s first days in office, and the new administration yanked some advertising meant to encourage sign-ups. … While a set of federal essential health benefits, required of health plans sold to individuals and small businesses, will now remain in law, federal health officials could narrow what they require, limiting prescription drugs, for instance, or the number of visits allowed for mental-health treatment or physical therapy. … The administration also could take advantage of a part of the ACA that, starting this year, lets health officials give states broad latitude to carry out the law’s goals.”
— Personnel is policy, and Trump has appointed several people who openly oppose the missions of the agencies they lead. “If you look at these Cabinet nominees, they were selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction,” Bannon explained at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Scott Pruitt, for example, spent six years suing the Environmental Protection Agency as Oklahoma’s attorney general. Now he’s running it. He’s already done a great deal to narrow the scope of the agency’s mission and halted inquiries launched by his predecessor. Soon after getting confirmed, for instance, he told operators of oil and gas wells that they could ignore the agency’s previous requests for information about their equipment’s emissions of methane.
Now the White House is taking active steps to starve the bureaucracy of its lifeblood: money and staff. He called for slashing the EPA’s budget by 31 percent, the biggest cut of any federal agency, in addition to eliminating a fifth of its workforce. Efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes are among the more than 50 programs that would be eliminated. (Denise Lu and Tim Meko prepared several visualizations of the impacts such cuts would have on the environment.)
— Sometimes who you don’t hire is just as important as who you do. Trump recently told Fox News that he will not fill all the vacancies he’s entitled to. He explained that not moving to populate the cabinet departments is a feature, not a bug, of his administration. “When I see a story about ‘Donald Trump didn’t fill hundreds and hundreds of jobs,’ it’s because, in many cases, we don’t want to fill those jobs,” the president acknowledged. “Many of those jobs I don’t want to fill.” Those unstaffed jobs will be chokepoints to block action by the administrative state.
— Trump’s biggest donors, who have been briefed on his theory of the case, are giving him a very long leash because they are playing the long game. “The atmosphere was buoyant at a conference held by the conservative Heartland Institute last week at a downtown Washington hotel, where speakers denounced climate science as rigged and jubilantly touted deep cuts Trump is seeking to make to the Environmental Protection Agency,” Matea Gold and Chris Mooney report. “Front and center during the two-day gathering were New York hedge fund executive Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah Mercer, Republican mega-donors who with their former political adviser (Bannon) helped finance an alternative media ecosystem that amplified Trump’s populist themes during last year’s campaign.”
The Heartland Institute embraces views that have long been considered outlier positions by the scientific community. In 2012, the group paid for a Chicago billboard that read, “I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?” alongside a picture of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. The Mercers have given this group more than $5 million in recent years.
Half a dozen Trump transition officials and administration advisers attended the gathering, including Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who headed Trump’s EPA transition team. Ebell, who disputes the scientific consensus that humans are driving the warming of the planet, received Heartland’s “Speaks Truth to Power Award.”
“Many of the people who are now prominent in the Trump administration attended our conferences, even spoke at our conferences, read our publications,” Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast told The Post. “I think we’re seeing the fruit of a decade of hard work on this issue.”
— Most importantly of all, Neil Gorsuch is poised to secure a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court. Bannon said the president has chosen his appointees with the deconstruction of the administrative state in mind. Nowhere is that more obvious than on the high court.
It is notable that Bannon made his declaration of “deconstruction” during a Q&A with Matt Schlapp, president of the American Conservative Union. Gorsuch, a political operator whose mom ran the EPA under Ronald Reagan, wrote an email to Schlapp right after the 2004 election. He had just volunteered to help George W. Bush in Ohio. “What a magnificent result for the country,” Gorsuch told Schlapp, who was Bush’s political director. “For me personally, the experience was invigorating and a great deal of fun. … While I’ve spent considerable time trying to help the cause on a volunteer basis in various roles, I concluded that I’d really like to be a full-time member of the team.” Gorsuch sent Schlapp a list of jobs he’d be “competent to handle.” He wound up getting a plum appointment in the Justice Department, and then Bush appointed him to the 10th Circuit.
From the bench, Gorsuch has dependably advanced “the cause.” The most distinctive part of his jurisprudence, which helped ensure his spot on every conservative group’s shortlist, is his opposition to what’s called “Chevron deference.” In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that judges should generally defer to administrative agencies’ interpretations of federal law in cases where the law may be “ambiguous” and the agency’s position seems “reasonable.” Even Antonin Scalia bought into this standard. But Gorsuch denounces it as “a judge-made doctrine for the abdication of the judicial duty.”
This is one of the reasons Republicans are willing to use the nuclear option, changing the rules of the Senate, to get him confirmed with fewer than 60 votes. They are confident he will facilitate a major rollback of the regulatory state over the next 30 to 40 years, which would be a major part of Trump’s legacy as president.
Progressive outside groups may come to regret not organizing more in opposition to Gorsuch. Betsy DeVos will have only a very small fraction of the impact that Gorsuch will on the trajectory of this country, yet the liberal grassroots mobilized against her nomination to be secretary of education by what felt like a factor of 10. There were literally empty seats at the back of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing room last week.
— Good morning from West Palm Beach, Florida. I flew down yesterday to meet my dad for spring training. We saw the Nationals play the Astros and are about to get on the road for Port St. Lucie to see them play the Mets this afternoon. The home opener at Nats Park, one of my favorite days of the year, is one week from today.
— Happening Tuesday at 9 a.m.: “The 202 Live” with Tom Perez. The DNC chair, who was secretary of labor and head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under Obama, will discuss his plans for the Democratic National Committee, as well as how the party can reclaim power in upcoming elections. Dan Balz, The Post’s chief correspondent, will fill in as guest host for the program. Register here.
WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:
— Senate Intelligence Committee investigators are planning to question Jared Kushner about the meetings he arranged with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, as part of their broader inquiry into links between Trump associates and the Russian government. The New York Times’ Jo Becker, Matthew Rosenberg and Maggie Haberman report: “The meetings included a previously unreported sit-down with the head of Russia’s state-owned development bank. Until now, the White House had acknowledged only an early December meeting between Mr. Kislyak and Mr. Kushner, which occurred at Trump Tower and was also attended by Michael T. Flynn … Later that month, though, Mr. Kislyak requested a second meeting, which Mr. Kushner asked a deputy to attend in his stead. At Mr. Kislyak’s request, Mr. Kushner later met with Sergey N. Gorkov, the chief of Vnesheconombank, which the United States placed on its sanctions list after [Putin] annexed Crimea and began meddling in Ukraine. A White House spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, confirmed those meetings, saying in an interview that nothing of consequence was discussed and that they went nowhere.”
ESCALATION IN THE MIDDLE EAST:
— Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has asked the White House to lift Obama-era restrictions on U.S. military support for Persian Gulf states engaged in a protracted civil war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Karen DeYoung and Missy Ryan report: “In a memo this month to national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Mattis said that ‘limited support’ for Yemen operations being conducted by Saudi Arabia and the UAE — including a planned Emirati offensive to retake a key Red Sea port — would help combat a ‘common threat.’ Approval of the request would mark a significant policy shift[:] U.S. military activity in Yemen until now has been confined mainly to counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda’s affiliate there … It would also be a clear signal of the administration’s intention to move more aggressively against Iran. The Trump White House, in far stronger terms than its predecessor, has echoed Saudi and Emirati charges that Iran is training, arming and directing the Shiite Houthis in a proxy war to increase its regional clout against the Gulf’s Sunni monarchies…
“But the immediate question, addressed by Mattis’s memo and tentatively slated to come before the principals committee of senior national security aides this week, is whether to provide support for a proposed UAE-led operation to push the Houthis from the port of Hodeida, through which humanitarian aid and rebel supplies pass. A similar Emirati proposal … was rejected late last year by the Obama administration, on the grounds that Emirati ships and warplanes, U.S. Special Operations forces and Yemeni government troops were unlikely to succeed in dislodging the entrenched, well-armed rebels and could worsen the humanitarian situation.”
— The U.S. military acknowledged for the first time over the weekend that it launched an airstrike against ISIS in Mosul, where residents say more than 100 civilians were killed. (Missy Ryan and Loveday Morris)
— Hamas closed its only civilian border crossing with Israel Sunday amid rising tensions after the mysterious killing of a senior Hamas operative, who was shot in the garage of his home. Hamas has accused Israel of being behind the killing of the officer, who served nine years in an Israeli prison for his part in planning suicide bombings that killed dozens of Israeli civilians. Tensions have quickly ricocheted to their highest levels since 2014. (Ruth Eglash and Hazem Balousha)
— Nature abhors a vacuum. Key U.S. allies are nervous about Trump’s isolationist rhetoric. They don’t feel like they can trust America’s security guarantee the way they could in the past. Anna Fifield reports this morning on an influential group of Japanese politicians who are seeking a stronger military response from Tokyo to North Korea, making the case that the pacifist country should acquire the ability to strike Pyongyang instead of having to rely on Washington. “Japan can’t just wait until it’s destroyed,” said one politician who supports the idea. “It’s legally possible for Japan to strike an enemy base that’s launching a missile at us, but we don’t have the equipment or the capability.”
GET SMART FAST:
- British security officials said the Westminster Bridge attacker sent an encrypted WhatsApp message just minutes before carrying out his deadly attack – prompting a contentious debate surrounding privacy rights on the Facebook-owned messaging service. Authorities pleaded with organizations that provide encrypted services to make their platforms accessible to intelligence services and police. “We need to make sure that organizations like WhatsApp — and there are plenty of others like that — don’t provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other,” said Home Secretary Amber Rudd. (AP)
- A United Airlines gate agent in Denver barred two women from boarding their flight because they were wearing leggings – citing the airline’s vaguely-stated dress code, which makes no mention of the popular stretchy pants. A third woman was forced to change her outfit before she was permitted to board the aircraft. (Luz Lazo)
- South Korean prosecutors asked the courts to issue a warrant to arrest former President Park Geun-hye for her role in a massive corruption and influence-peddling scandal that led to her impeachment earlier this month. Prosecutors – who grilled Park for 14 hours last week – told the judge they were concerned about Park destroying evidence. (Anna Fifield)
- Congolese rebels are believed to have recently beheaded more than 40 police officers, ramping up violence in the region after a series of clashes between local militia and government forces. The group is also suspected of having kidnapped an American man, a Swedish woman and four Congolese citizens who were working with the U.N. to investigate the violence. (Max Bearak)
- Eight Japanese high school students are presumed dead after being engulfed in an avalanche while on a mountain climbing outing at a ski resort. Some 40 others were also injured. (AP)
- The Final Four is set. North Carolina beat Kentucky 75-73 and will play Oregon. South Carolina beat Florida 77-70 and will play Gonzaga. Both games are Saturday night.
- The U.S. men’s hockey team is reportedly considering boycotting the world championships in solidarity with the women’s team, whose members are…