Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

Friday roundup: The administration goes off the rails

FILE -- President Donald Trump greets attendees of a Greek Independence celebration in the East Room of the White House in Washington, March 24, 2017. "Change libel Laws?" President Trump asked in a recent tweet, returning to a favorite theme on the campaign trail. In reality he has no power to to do so, and there is virtually no strategy he could pursue that would have much, if any, chance of changing libel laws. (Al Drago/The New York Times)
Al Drago/The New York Times
President Donald Trump greets attendees of a Greek Independence celebration in the East Room of the White House on March 24.

A week in the Trump White House is like a political lifetime. Amazingly it was only seven days ago that Trump and the GOP were dealt the most damaging blow of his young presidency — the nominal defeat of Obamacare repeal in the House of Representatives.

It’s hard to get much worse than that, but then this week happened. Here’s a look back.

Trump’s approval rating has plunged as low as 35 percent in Gallup polling. That’s bad, as in Watergate, Katrina, unwinnable war, economic recession, bad; and yet it’s happening at a time of relatively strong economic growth and low unemployment. Imagine where Trump would be if the economy was actually doing badly or the White House was dealing with a crisis that wasn’t 100 percent self-inflicted.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) speaks at news conference about plans to continue an effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, following a House Republican Conference meeting, on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 28, 2017. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Doug Mills/The New York Times
House Speaker Paul Ryan at a news conference about plans to continue an effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
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So how about Trump’s legislative priorities? They are going nowhere fast, and, as Stan Collender writes in Forbes, passing tax reform — Trump’s next big agenda item — will be as difficult (if not more) than repealing Obamacare. If the health care debacle shows us anything it’s that the biggest challenge for Republicans is not Democratic obstructionism, it’s their complete lack of consensus. Trump tweeting out that “we must fight” the House Freedom Caucus probably isn’t going to help.

Democratic obstructionism, however, is not inconsequential. It looks increasingly possible that Democrats will filibuster the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch. If that happens I strongly suspect that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is likely to go nuclear — i.e. change Senate rules to allow for Supreme Court picks to pass with a majority of senators, not 60 when the filibuster is used.

It’s not a slam dunk move, however, and it’s one that could come back to haunt Republicans if Democrats ever take back the White House and the Senate. But in the long run if it does away with the anti-democratic filibuster it might be a good thing.

Trump is, as his nature, is trying to bypass Congress and act authoritar… er, I mean unilaterally. This week he put out a new executive order calling for a roll back of Obama’s climate change policies. But there is less here than meets the eye. As Ben Adler writes in the Washington Post, other countries will not stop working to uphold their climate change pledges; state regulatory efforts not only will continue, but will likely be ramped up; and companies have already made decisions based on Obama’s environmental rule-making that will not be so easy to reverse. Finally, there is the fact that unwinding environmental rules is a cumbersome process and is one that Trump administration is likely to lose in court.

epa05874013 Ivanka Trump, daughter of U.S. President Donald Trump, speaks as US President Trump, left, listens during a meeting with women small business owners in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 27 March 2017. Investors further unwound trades initiated in November resting on the idea that the election of Trump and a Republican Congress meant smooth passage of an agenda that featured business-friendly tax cuts and regulatory changes. EPA/ANDREW HARRER / POOL
EPA/ANDREW HARRER/POOL
Ivanka Trump during a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

Remember when Ivanka Trump said she had no interest in serving in the federal government? Ha! This week she took an unpaid job in the West Wing of the White House. While this looks like nepotism run amok, surely her experience in real estate and fashion is ample preparation for the rigors of working in the White House.

epa05880912 US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (R), Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczykowski (C) and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (L) attend NATO foreign ministers meeting at alliance headquarters, in Brussels, Belgium, 31 March 2017. NATO Foreign Ministers gathered for a one day meeting of the North Atlantic Council (NAC). EPA/STEPHANIE LECOCQ
EPA/STEPHANIE LECOCQ
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (at right) and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (at left) attend a meeting of the North Atlantic Council.
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Rex Tillerson is on a glide path to being the worst Secretary of State in American history. A report this week in the Washington Post chronicles his refusal to interact with the State Department bureaucracy, his unwillingness to stand up to White House efforts to eviscerate his agency, his belief that being the nation’s top diplomat is like being an oil executive and his failure to grasp that as a public servant he is actually required to engage with the news media. As if we didn’t know already, Tillerson is yet another data point that shows success in the corporate boardroom does not translate into success in the public sector. But you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

epa05879780 Adam Schiff (C), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, speaks to the media about the White House's invitation for him to come review classified material in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, USA, 28 March 2017. More than a week ago, House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes made the controversial decision to brief the President on intelligence information he received from 'the executive branch' that pertained to the committee's investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO
EPA/JIM LO SCALZO
Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, speaks to the media about the White House’s invitation for him to come review classified material on March 28.

Then, finally, there is the story that represents a true existential threat to the White House — Russia.

This week, it was revealed that two White House national security council aides (Ezra Cohen-Watkins and Michael Ellis) gave House Intelligence Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes the intelligence information that he claimed last week showed that the Trump transition team had been incidentally surveilled. This means the White House supplied Nunes with information intended to prove correct Trump’s March 4th tweet claiming that President Obama wiretapped him. The leaked information doesn’t actually back up Trump’s claim, but consider the irony of this turn of events. When FBI Director Jim Comey testified before Congress, Nunes and other Republicans on the Intelligence Committee repeatedly decried the leaking of classified information from anonymous sources.

A week later Nunes revealed classified information leaked to him by anonymous sources.

On the bright side if Trump wants to prosecute leakers of classified information, he can start with two people in his NSC.

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But the even bigger story is the report that former national security adviser Mike Flynn is seeking immunity in return for cooperating with congressional investigations looking into Trump’s Russia connections.

“General Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit,’’ his lawyer said in a statement, which should sound pretty ominous if you’re living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s hard to know how big of a deal this is or what kind of information Flynn is offering — and apparently Flynn has so far not received any takers for his offer. However, one piece of information that Flynn could reveal is one that many have long suspected namely that he did not reach out to Russian ambassador to the United States on his own, but rather was instructed to do so by Trump. That could be a major political problem for Trump, but the real danger would come if Flynn can identify illegal acts by Trump and his aides, particularly in relation to collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign.

I know all of this seems pretty bad, but on a completely positive note, we’re a mere couple of days hours away from baseball.

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Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.