Here are the four things you need to know before your coffee gets cold, the March 21, 2017 edition:
Comey on the Hill
FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers testified yesterday before the House Intelligence Committee in a rare, public hearing. The goal of the hearing was to air-out the concerns of Democrats and Republicans related to, generally, Russian interference in the United States’ Presidential Election last Fall and the leaking of classified information coming out of the clandestine services.
There was little real news made in the hearing despite breathless coverage from the press. The FBI Director confirmed that there is an ongoing investigation of Russian meddling in the election and potential ties to associates of then-candidate Donald Trump. It was also confirmed that there was no “vote hacking” or tampering in the ultimate result of the election. Further, there was only the slightest indication that the FBI was taking proactive steps to eliminate leaks in the intelligence community. However, in fairness to Director Comey, it’s unlikely that, even if a leaker was already known, that a public forum would have been the best place to unveil who that person was. Cynically, as it was noted by Republican Trey Gowdy, it’s also possible that leaks weren’t coming from low-level officials, but rather from the highest reaches of the intelligence community (read: the political appointees with axes to grind).
Regardless, the news out of the hearing was merely a confirmation of what most folks had suspected. At a minimum, the intelligence chiefs were on-record stating that leaking is a federal crime. What remains wholly unclear is exactly how Director Comey intends to proceed with his investigation of leaks and Russian interference. The leaks, which have been widely disseminated by a complicit press, illegally unmasked the name of at least one Trump associate. The go-to explanation is that this individual’s name was picked up incidentally while the intelligence services were monitoring foreign agents. There was no evidence, beyond the word of the FBI and NSA that this was, indeed, what had happened. Again, this is understandable given that discussing an ongoing investigation is a bad idea.
The hearing will give both Democrats and Republicans fuel for talking points (though interestingly we haven’t seen anyone question the need for a clandestine superstructure running throughout Americans’ daily lives). Little else of consequence came out of the hearing. We’ll see where the investigation leads.
Gorsuch to Take Questions
Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday for the first day of a three-day hearing before the Committee votes early next month on whether to send the Judge’s nomination for consideration by the whole Senate. Every Republican is supporting Gorsuch, and, but-for an unforeseen revelation or bungled testimony, he will be confirmed in early-to-mid-April. This will happen regardless of Democrats’ decision to obstruct the nomination or not. Mitch McConnell has made it clear that he will be open to changing the rule on the filibuster of Supreme Court nominees if at least eight Democrats don’t join with Republicans to get to the 60-vote threshold to end debate. It’s important to note that there are a lot of Democrats who would love to oppose Gorsuch just to stick it to President Trump, but there are nearly a dozen Democratic Senators up for reelection in states won by Donald Trump who see this as a wary proposition.
Here’s the rationale that some on the left are using to give themselves cover to support Gorsuch: he’s a qualified nominee, replacing a conservative, not changing the balance of the court, and it’s best to keep the powder dry in case Donald Trump gets another pick. The logic is sound politics. If Democrats look reasonable on Gorsuch, they can retain the high-ground on the next nominee and say something to the effect of “we would support a qualified nominee, just look, we supported Gorsuch!”
This scenario, at this point, is a hypothetical going into 2018. It’s unclear if President Trump will get a back-to-back Supreme Court fight before the midterms and some Democrats would rather weigh the certainty against the doubt and fight this nomination from the left. However, the big question mark that remains hanging out in the future is the end of the Supreme Court’s term in June. This is the time when the Court recesses for the summer and, by tradition, Justices could announce their retirements. All eyes are on Justice Anthony Kennedy, the moderate swing-vote on the Court. If everything goes as predicted, he will be joined on the Court in April by one of his former law clerks. This is a good sign that it might be time to retire. Moreover, Kennedy, by all accounts a consummate gentleman, should take solace in the fact that the boisterous Donald Trump has heeded the advice of reasoned minds and made a good choice on his first Supreme Court pick. Certainly, with reassurances from the Administration, Kennedy could be looking at a graceful exit in June.
Judge Gorsuch will face tough questions from Senate Democrats who would like to get a few talking points for resisting the nominee, who, by almost all accounts, is eminently qualified for a position on the Supreme Court. It stands to reason that Judge Gorsuch is well-prepared to take questions, but there will, of course, always be “gotcha” moments. It remains to be seen how the Judge is able to field these attacks. This is the only day of scheduled, direct, testimony from the Judge. Yesterday was opening statements and tomorrow will be character witnesses.
Electronics Banned on Certain Flights
The United States has rolled-out new flight security restrictions on in-bound flights from eight countries. The eight countries, Turkey, Kuwait, Morocco, the UAE, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar, were not subject to the immigration pause earlier in the year, but are Muslim-majority countries. The electronics ban would allow smartphones in plane cabins but would prohibit the use of laptops and larger electronics.
Each of the eight countries is a traditional ally of the United States, but officials with the American government have noted that the restriction is in relation to direct intelligence received that terror groups are seeking to blow up commercial planes. The restrictions, according to reports, are not related, in any way, to the President’s Executive Order on immigration. Moreover, given that the rationale for the immigration pause was that the six nations on that list are incapable of fully vetting people getting on board aircraft, the same rationale is not being applied to these mostly-well-off states subject to the new restrictions.
The President will be on Capitol Hill today to listen to concerns from Republicans about the House GOP-led replacement of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). In broad terms, the President has thrown his considerable influence behind House Speaker Paul Ryan who has drawn criticism from the right for not adopting a “full repeal” bill as some note the GOP has promised for the better part of a decade. Ryan, on the other hand, as well as GOP leaders, know that they need to push a bill out in order to get to other legislative business, and the optics of people losing healthcare coverage in the lead-up to next year’s midterm election could be a disaster for the Republican-majorities in the House and Senate.
The House plan is set for a vote on Thursday. If we see that the vote is still on, we can be confident that the whip count on the bill is sufficient to ensure that the bill will make it through this first step. Despite some Republicans opposing, there’s a good chance that the bill will make it through. It’s important to remember that this is the first of three phases in the Ryan Plan to replace Obamacare. The next step will be centered on the President and HHS Secretary Tom Price. They will enact considerable regulatory reforms (through powers already vested in the Secretary by Obamacare and now by the replacement legislation). There will, then, be a third phase, back in Congress, that will allow for the implementation of changes to the insurance market and other Republican, free-market initiatives.
It’s not clear how much of the House plan will survive in the Senate, where it faces tough scrutiny from GOP Senators. The GOP majority in the Senate is razor-thin, even in the first phase, where only 50 votes will be required (this is why there will need to be the third phase to get the non-budget items passed). If the Senate can get a bill cobbled together, it will then proceed to conference to get a final version that can then be passed in both the House and Senate. It’s likely that there are going to be a lot of heated discussions behind closed doors in the coming months and weeks with regard to what the final phase one bill will look like. However, the Speaker and the President know that something needs to get passed in order to prevent the collapse of Obamacare and to save the GOP majority from electoral defeat next year.
Of course, there are more things going on in the world, but these should be enough to get your day started.