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January 11, 2017

In already-polarized America, the divisions post-Trump are extraordinary –

As we begin the second year of the Trump presidency, the divisions in the country seem more pervasive and bitter than ever. Geographically, as the 2016 election map clearly shows, we are divided into Blue America on the East and West Coasts, and Red America in the vast fly-over country in-between. And we are divided culturally, economically, and socially as well as geographically.  We only listen to news that reinforces our beliefs, we only socialize with people with whom we agree.  Moreover, we don’t just disagree with other opinions, we reject those opinions and dislike those who hold them.

Pew released a poll last October that put numbers on these divisions: 95 percent of Republicans are consistency more conservative that the median Democrat, and 97 percent of Democrats are consistently more liberal than the median Republican.  In 1994 those numbers were 33 percent and 30 percent.

CNN’s Chris Cillizza insightfully translated that Pew data into political reality: While lots of Americans insist they are tired of partisanship and lack of accomplishments in DC, they really aren’t.  They are sick of others not agreeing with them.  They support compromise, but only if the compromise comports with all of their beliefs. Which isn’t compromise.

As Chris put it: the Pew poll has “some very bad news for people who believe in a sensible center in politics: It doesn’t exist.”

Columnist/humorist Dave Barry said it well in his annual year-end column, writing that January began with “ . . . the nation still bitterly divided over the 2016 election . . . Nevertheless as the year progresses, the two sides will gradually find a way — call it the open-minded generosity of the American spirit — to loathe each other even more.”

The Democrats –

The 2016 presidential campaign exposed deep divisions in the Democratic Party. The insurgent campaign of Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders was first seen as a quixotic effort, but he gave Hillary Clinton a run for her money.  And Sanders supporters believe that had the Democratic establishment not rigged the system against them, he could have won.

Those internal Party divisions burst into public view last November when former interim Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chair Donna Brazile published a book, Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-Ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House, in which she argued that the system was in fact rigged for Clinton.  Brazile wrote that the Clinton fundraising arrangement with the DNC “was not illegal, but it sure looked unethical. If the fight had been fair, one campaign would not have control of the party before the voters had decided which one they wanted to lead. This was not a criminal act, but as I saw it, it compromised the party’s integrity.”

Brazile’s book invoked intense response from Democrats, making it clear that the intra-party wounds will be slow to heal. CNN’s Chris Cillizza summarized the situation well in a blog post, noting that when a CNN reporter asked left-wing icon Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) if she believed the 2016 nomination campaign was rigged, she said “yes.”  Cillizza wrote: “Brazile’s book – and Warren’s “yes” – amounts to spraying a can of lighter fluid onto a bonfire burning between liberals and the establishment. And it’s only going to get hotter from here on out.”

And the Democrats have an additional problem: during the eight years of the Obama Administration, about 1,000 elected Democrats at the state and local level were defeated.  As a result, the Democrat party has an aging leadership in Washington and a very shallow bench of young elected officials from the states to move up through the ranks.

In a CNN poll taken last fall, Democratic voters named the Democratic leader who they believe best reflects the values of their Party. The top five Democrats named were Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren.   Sanders is 76 years old, Clinton is 70, Biden is 75, and Warren is 68.  And House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Whip Steny Hoyer are 77 and 78 years old respectively; Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and Whip Dick Durbin are 67 and 73.

As a Democratic operative colorfully put it in a story last summer: “We have 80-year-old leaders & 90-year-old [Committee] ranking members. This isn’t a party. It’s a giant assisted living center. Complete with field trips, gym, dining room and attendants.”

Some Democrats are now beginning to challenge that leadership. Last fall Congresswoman Linda Sanchez (D-CA-38) called on Pelosi, Hoyer and Assistant Democrat Leader Jim Clyburn (age 77) to all step down after the 2018 elections to make way for up-and-coming lawmakers.  She said:

I do think it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of leaders, and I want to be part of that transition. They are all of the same generation, and, again, their contributions to the Congress and the caucus are substantial. But I think there comes a time when you need to pass that torch.  And I think it’s time.

The Republicans –

After the 2010 election, the GOP was roiled in an intra-Party battle between the conservative Tea Party and the “establishment” in Washington. The Tea Party and the  more-recently-organized right-wing House Freedom Caucus frequently demand ideological purity and oppose compromise, repeatedly causing legislative stalemates and leaving the GOP majority unable to govern.

That intra-Party battle took on a whole new dimension during and after the 2016 election. The established Republican Party did not nominate Donald Trump, and a significant number of them still do not support him.  While it would be hard to deny today that the Republican Party is the Party of Trump, the Trump “base” is not the traditional GOP electorate, and many Republicans today say they do not recognize their Party.

Last year the Congressional GOP majority had to come to terms with reality and attempt to find a way to deal with the unexpected and often hostile presidency of Donald Trump. The President had very few personal relationships with Congressional Republicans, and seemed oblivious to the fact that the legislative success of his presidency depended on the GOP majority in Congress.  As a result, he frequently turned his hyperbolic “drain the swamp” rhetoric on the GOP.  Exacerbating the problem, the Trump base voters delighted in his attacks on the GOP “establishment.”

While Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been the most frequent target of Trump’s hostile tweets, he is far from alone. The President has also publicly criticized the GOP Congress as a whole, and personally rebuked numerous specific GOP members of Congress, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senators Jeff Flake (AZ), Bob Corker (TN), Lisa Murkowski (AK), John McCain (AZ) and Lindsay Graham (SC).  And most astonishingly, he attacked his own Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the first Senator to support his candidacy and his most enthusiastic backer throughout the campaign.

Trump’s frequent attacks on fellow Republicans led to a telling headline in a Washington Post blog: “Trump attacks Republicans on Twitter, but Democrats?  Not so much.”

The intra-Party conflict continued into the fall, finally erupting into a public Twitter battle between the President and Tennessee GOP Senator Bob Corker who, after a few Trump tweets attacking him, responded in kind tweeting that “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.”

Fortunately for the GOP, their warring factions called a cease fire in the final quarter of the year. Their new-found alliance resulted in successful collaboration on tax reform [See Separate Staff Report on Taxes], and early indications of cooperation on a legislative agenda in 2018.  We will have to wait and see how long the détente lasts.

The Media –

The President’s unorthodox behavior no doubt gives the press plenty of material to cover, but there is also no doubt that the negative press coverage of this President is unprecedented. According to an analysis done by Pew, 62 percent of the press stories about the President in his first 60 days in office were negative, only 5 percent positive. Conversely, only 20 percent of the stories about President Obama were negative while 42 percent were positive.

While there is virtually no press coverage of the Administration’s accomplishments – the lack of coverage of his robust regulatory reform agenda is case in point – the coverage of Trump campaign alleged collusion with Russia is constant.

Press focus on the Russia story is so intense that on the night of the terrorist attack in Manchester, England, last summer, MSNBC gave the attack just 10 seconds of coverage before pivoting to a Russia story. Worse still, CNN didn’t even mention the attack in their top-of-the-hour news coverage, leading instead with stories about Russian collusion.

CNN’s obsession with the Russia story merited biting humor from columnist Dave Barry in his year-end column in December: “You can tune in to CNN any time, day or night, and you are virtually guaranteed to hear the word “Russians” within 10 seconds, even if it’s during a Depends commercial.”

(In fairness, it should be noted that some Fox News Channel hosts – Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro come to mind – have become virtual spokesmen for the Administration.)

The President responds to negative press coverage by calling it “Fake News,” and his supporters accept his assertion that critical stories are untrue – they simply do not believe them. Unfortunately, the press itself reinforces the “Fake News” criticism by reporting stories that are in fact untrue.  Erroneous reporting and subsequent retractions embarrassed major media outlets repeatedly last year.

In a December 28th story in The Hill, Jonathan Easley described the high-profile retractions that give credence to the Trump “Fake News” battle cry:

The Post had to correct a story claiming that Russians had hacked the U.S. electrical grid. Former FBI Director James Comey told Congress under oath that a New York Times story titled “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence” was “almost entirely wrong.”

The press had a particularly rough stretch in early December, when ABC News suspended its top political reporter Brian Ross for incorrectly reporting that Trump had directed his former national security adviser Michael Flynn to contact the Kremlin during the 2016 campaign.

Later that same week, CNN had to retract a story claiming that WikiLeaks had given Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., early access to stolen Democratic emails. It was one of three major reporting errors on the Trump-Russia connection that the outlet admitted to this year.

The President and the White House at the end of year one –

The President – Donald Trump ended 2017 as he began it: his approval hovers at an unprecedented low of just under 40 percent, the left and the media hate him, the GOP “establishment” longs for a more orthodox presidency, and Trump supporters resolutely stand with him.

While most polls show that the Trump base remains loyal, pollsters have repeatedly argued that there is mounting evidence of cracks in that support. They report a measurable drop in support among non-college-educated white voters . . . voters who had been more anti-Clinton than pro-Trump . . . traditionally Democratic blue-collar voters who had voted for Trump. .  Evangelicals . . . men . . . whites . . .  voters over 50 years old.

Perhaps as evidence of a shrinking Trump base, VA GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie lost his race last November by a much wider margin than anyone expected. Trump is widely seen as the cause of that defeat, perhaps because of falling popularity, but more likely because dislike of him has motivated a powerfully energized opposition.

Polling proved to be completely unreliable in the 2016 campaign, so it’s difficult to know how much of any of it to believe. But two things are certain:  (1) After the stunning defeat in Virginia last November, Republicans are very worried that Trump’s low approval rating will cause a similar result in the mid-term elections this November, and (2) the President knows his base still loves him and he will continue to feed them the raw-meat populist rhetoric that fills his Twitter account and brings them to their feet at campaign-style rallies.

A keen observer might note that these two certainties are not compatible.

Staff turmoil in the White house – Consistent with his promise to “drain the swamp,” President Trump filled his White House primarily with staff who were not part of the Washington “establishment.” While “drain the swamp” was an effective campaign promise, keeping that promise produced a White House staffed mostly by people with no experience relevant to their jobs – and resulted in staff turmoil that continues today.

It was clear from the outset that Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was establishing no rational chain of command in the White House. Staff walked into and out of the Oval Office at will and meetings were staffed by whoever wanted to be there irrespective of their expertise or knowledge of the issue being discussed.  This became a top-tier concern when the President announced that controversial Breitbart executive Steve Bannon would attend highly sensitive national security briefings, but that the Director of National Intelligence would be allowed to attend only on an as-needed basis.  Fortunately, that decision was quickly reversed.

The organizational chaos in the White House resulted in inevitable staff infighting and abnormally high staff turnover.   As the Wall Street Journal reported on December 28th, there was a 34 percent turnover in the White House staff in year one of the Trump presidency – the next highest turnover rate in the last 40 years was 17 percent in President Reagan’s first term in 1981.

National Security Director Michael Flynn was fired after less than a month, followed by his Deputy KT McFarland. Controversial political advisors Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka are gone, and is Press Secretary Sean Spicer.  Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was replaced by General John Kelly by the end of the summer.   There have been four communications directors including the amazing 10-day tenure of Anthony Scaramucci.

As further evidence of dysfunctional staffing, it was just announced that the Director of the Office of White House Personnel, Johnny DeStefano, will now also oversee the Office of Public Liaison, the Office of Political Affairs and the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs; a portfolio clearly larger than any one individual, no matter how competent, can handle. As one DC lobbyist humorously suggested, “Evidently there will be no White House staff in 2018 – just Johnny DeStefano in various disguises.”

It is widely reported that Chief of Staff John Kelly has imposed some order on the personnel chaos in the White House: stopping the open-door policy in the Oval Office, requiring staff to schedule appointments with the President, limiting and controlling participation in meetings.  Kelly is also responsible for firing some of the more controversial staff and imposing strict discipline on those who remain.  Hopefully, the President will continue to allow his Chief to bring order to the chaos.

Executive Branch staffing outside the White House – President Trump made a campaign pledge to shrink the size of the Federal bureaucracy, and it is another pledge he has kept. According to an analysis published on December 30th by the Washington Post, most Federal agencies have fewer employees today than at the beginning of last year.  Overall, the number of Federal employees shrank by about 16,000 by the end of September, contrasted to an increase of 68,000 in the first nine months of the Obama Administration.

While there’s a lot to be said for a shrinking bureaucracy, there is another side to this story. There are approximately 1,200 senior positions in the Federal government that are filled by Presidential appointments that require Senate confirmation.  Among them, approximately 600 are considered key political positions, including Cabinet Secretaries and Deputy Secretaries, and virtually all of the top administrative and policy-making jobs in the Executive Branch departments and agencies.

The Trump Administration has been painfully slow in filling these critical positions.   The Washington Post and the non-profit Partnership for Public Service collaborate on tracking the progress of filling critical positions in the government, and according to their analysis, as of January 5th, 2018:  only 241 Trump nominees have been confirmed to top positions, 74 additional nominees are awaiting confirmation, and 16 individuals are expected to be nominated soon.  Most troubling, there are 295 positions for which there is no nominee.

The glacial pace of presidential nominations is due in no small part to the cumbersome White House vetting process, especially in the critical first months of the Administration. The President’s “drain the swamp” mission was a huge problem – it’s very difficult to find qualified individuals to nominate to critical government positions when experience in the Washington “establishment” was a disqualifying credential. Additionally, potential nominees were carefully screened to determine if they had ever posted anything critical of candidate Trump on social media, and some were disqualified based on that scrutiny.

Adding to the problem, Senate Democrats broke with the historical tradition of affording a new President quick confirmation of his key appointments. Instead, they slow-walked virtually every nominee, even highly-qualified and non-controversial candidates.  With Senate rules providing for up to 30 hours of debate on each nominee, each confirmation could take almost a week of floor time.

The Administration filled many of the staff positions by appointing people to those jobs in an “acting” capacity, permitted under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, but that’s a temporary fix. Under the FVRA an official can serve in an acting capacity for no more than 300 days, after which any actions he/she takes can be deemed null and void.  As the end of the year approached, hundreds of acting officials reached that point.

Compounding the problem, when Congress adjourns sine die at the end of a First Session of a Congress, any nominations still awaiting Senate confirmation are returned to the White House unless unanimous consent is reached to hold those nominations over to the Second Session of that Congress. Under normal circumstances unanimous consent is given and the nominations are held over.  But these circumstances are not normal, and when Congress adjourned in December, Democrats refused to give consent to holding over about 100 nominations.  Those whose nominations were returned to the White House have to begin the nomination process all over again – assuming that the President re-nominates them.

Among the positions that therefore remain vacant for the foreseeable future are: One Cabinet Secretary; two Deputy Secretaries; half a dozen Under and Deputy Under Secretaries; more than fifteen Assistant Secretaries; Five CFOs/General Counsels/Solicitors; more than two dozen judges and a handful of Assistant Attorneys General; nine Ambassadors; and dozens of Board and Commission Chairs and members.

This is no small matter. By insisting that nominations be returned to the White House, Senate Democrats ensured that almost 100 senior policy positions in the Trump Administration remain vacant – with the obvious result that the agencies that should be implementing the Trump agenda are crippled or, worse, still staffed with Obama Administration appointees.

Despite partisan opposition and self-imposed obstacles, the Administration does have a record of accomplishment –

With the President’s unfortunate tendency to provide a constant stream of off-message tweets, and the intense media focus on Russia, there has been little attention paid to the policy initiatives of the Administration.   And there have been significant accomplishments:

  • The most lasting legacy of the Trump Administration will be the confirmation of judges – Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court and twelve additional appellate court judges who will impact our judiciary for generations;
  • America’s energy independence is more secure today with the approval of the Keystone and Dakota Pipelines, his reversal of a drilling ban in Alaska, opening up of a small slice of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration, and the expected repeal of the ban on fracking on public lands;
  • ISIS is on the run, occupying today a tiny fraction of the land mass they controlled a year ago;
  • The President’s Executive Orders on regulations and the enactment of 14 separate Congressional Review Act resolutions have been virtually un-reported, but are responsible in significant measure for the improved business climate today [See Separate Staff Report on Regulatory Agenda];
  • An Executive Order cut the time for infrastructure permit approvals;
  • An Executive Order expanded apprenticeships in a public-private partnership which is now being implemented by Labor Secretary Alex Acosta;
  • The appointment of pro-business members of the National Labor Relations Board began the process of reversing the actions of almost a decade of pro-labor Obama Boards [See Separate Staff Report on Labor and Legal Update];
  • The most significant tax bill in decades was signed into law at the end of December [See Separate Staff Report on Taxes];
  • The stock market is hitting new records – while some would argue that the Trump Administration cannot take credit for the good economy, there is no doubt they would be blamed for a weak one!

The year ahead – what to expect in 2018 –

With the tax bill in their rear-view mirror, Congressional Republicans and the White House are faced with a new internal debate about their agenda for 2018.   They of course have must-do legislative items – a budget, spending bills, a debt limit extension.  But while those issues have to be addressed, they are not the cause of the differing political priorities of the House, Senate or White House.

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is calling for a more bi-partisan approach to legislation in the Senate this year. His call is as much pragmatic as philosophical – with the election of Democrat Doug Jones in the December special election in Alabama, McConnell’s GOP now has just a one vote majority.

Speaker Ryan is trying to quiet persistent rumors that he will step down at the end of the year, knowing that “lame duck” status would make managing the disparate elements of the House GOP caucus an even greater challenge. As it is, he has to balance the ideologically rigid House Freedom Caucus with the increasingly anti-Trump “establishment” Republicans.  His first challenge will be on the spending issues, with Democrats and moderate Republicans demanding a lifting of spending caps, a move adamantly opposed by House conservatives.

The White House is still contending with the continuing internal staff turmoil, with qualified candidates increasingly unwilling to fill critical vacancies precisely because of the unrelenting reports of turmoil. So they are trying to help shape the 2018 legislative agenda with inadequate staffing and conflicting priorities among the existing senior advisors.

So how does it play out on key issues?

Immigration: There can be no resolution to the on-going immigration fight without bipartisanship. Democrats and many Republicans want to stop the deportation of the so-called “dreamers” who were brought into the country as children by parents who entered the US illegally.  The President and most Republicans want improved border security, and the President continues to call for a border wall. The President also calls for an end to chain migration and other reforms.  It is most likely that a fix to the “dreamers” issue will be passed, and in a rational world a broader compromise would be achievable, but strongly held views both in Washington and in the country make it difficult.

Infrastructure: This is the most likely area for bipartisan cooperation, but there are serious challenges. First, they will need to define terms and conditions:  will “infrastructure” be limited to roads and bridges or include energy, broadband, airports, veterans’ hospitals, etc.; and will public/private partnerships be part of the proposal.  Just as important, they will need to get bipartisan agreement on how to pay for a proposed $1 trillion package.

Welfare and entitlement reform: Entitlement reform has long been a priority for Speaker Ryan, and he has argued that Congress should tackle it this year. Leader McConnell has been firm in his opposition to taking up controversial entitlement reform this year, especially following tax reform which the Democrats argue was a tax cut for big corporations and wealthy Americans at the expense of the lower and middle class taxpayers.  At the conclusion of a Camp David meeting with GOP Congressional Leaders the first weekend of January, the President seemed to put welfare reform on a back burner, telling the press that the GOP priorities are immigration reform and infrastructure.