Checks and Balances

“When someone screws you [in politics] you don’t acknowledge it. You remember it. And you wait. And when you get the chance, when the person who screwed you least expects it, you stick it to him, and hopefully he never knows it was you as he is going down. And you just watch him go down and smile to yourself as you admire your work.”

~ A former political advisor turned lobbyist.

In the news from Washington there is both hope and despair.

Despair is for the short-sighted. Hope is for those willing to look beyond the moment.

A politician I worked with once told me that sometimes relationships and bad ideas need to be “flushed all the way down” before there is any chance of starting again. Sometimes legislative bodies need to hold a vote just to get a bad idea out of the system before moving on.

Hopefully that is where we are with healthcare. After nearly a decade of campaigning for the unrealistic concept of repealing Obamacare, Republicans have now proven to themselves it cannot be done. At least not in the literal way they have been talking and thinking about it. But the problem remains. The national healthcare law passed in the first half of President Obama’s first term does have serious flaws and something needs to be done.

Republicans have had the luxury of blaming Democrats for everything bad about the Affordable Care Act, but now that they have tried and failed to fix it on their own terms, they share ownership. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York was right to temper celebration by Democrats when Republicans failed, because he knows both parties now have no choice but to work together. This fact gives rise to hope. This can be a turning point.

Most Americans, with at least a high school social studies understanding of the three branches of our federal government, know the role of the Senate is to act as a brake against the momentary passions of public opinion. The House, with its two-year terms, is “closest to the people” and more accurately reflects conventional wisdom. The Senate, it is said, is “like a saucer” where ideas are poured to cool and be considered carefully. The six-year terms of the Senate are meant to protect senators from the instant wrath of the voters and give members the political freedom to act in the best interest of the country, even if that means voting against popular opinion.

But the Senate’s role as a brake against bad ideas is much bigger than that. The U.S. Constitution gives the Senate special responsibility to provide advice and consent to the executive branch and to approve or reject executive and judicial nominations and treaties. Its rules thwart mob rule by protecting the rights of the minority and by giving each Senator the power to stop almost any questionable idea in its tracks.

When Republican Senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and John McCain, voted against the repeal of Obamacare, they were upholding the best traditions of the U.S. Senate whether you agree with them or not. Their votes have forced a new political reality those at the extremes of the Republican and Democratic parties must deal with. They must compromise if they hope to get anything done. Compromise prevents both sides from taking things too far in either direction.

Collins, Murkowski and McCain have all been described as “Republicans In Name Only” at different points in their careers. This is because they have consistently refused to run over cliffs with orthodox conservatives who would rather win an argument than win a vote, or change policy. The same problem exists on the Democratic side. While Republicans have been fighting to repeal Obamacare, most Democrats have been refusing to admit — with just as much vigor — that it needs repair.

When President Trump criticized the three Senators who poured healthcare repeal into the saucer, and when he calls for changes to the rules that would make the Senate more like the House, he shows his lack of understanding of the process and our institutions. There is danger in his ignorance, because he is the president and he therefore has the ability to influence public opinion and convert some to his way of thinking. Thankfully again, the Senate is there to protect us against this president’s impulsiveness.

The Trump administration tried to bully Senator Murkowski into supporting repeal by threatening her with the loss of support from the Department of Interior on issues important to her home state of Alaska. A few days later, she quietly reminded the administration that she chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and an appropriations subcommittee on the interior, and therefore has the power to significantly impact the budget of the Interior Department. Apparently none of the brash New Yorkers in the Trump administration had thought of that angle. Their level of strategic thinking stopped at: Murkowski — Alaska — wilderness — oil — interior = got her! A miscalculation.

For the last two weeks, President Trump has been bullying Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in an apparent attempt to get him to quit his job. Once again, individual senators have intervened. Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley signaled — via Twitter — that if Trump fires Sessions or forces him to resign, his committee will not hold hearings on a replacement. Once again, Trump and his enablers were forced to confront the fact that the president is not a dictator and the Senate is specifically assigned to provide a check against the power of the executive branch. Trump must now decide whether he wants Attorney General Sessions or no attorney general at all.

Senator Lindsey Graham delivered the Senate’s message with additional clarity. Removing Sessions or forcing him to resign, “would be the beginning of the end of the Trump administration,” he said. It is important to repeat that Graham, McCain, Murkowski, Grassley and Collins are all Republicans. And they have all put their roles as U.S. Senators above loyalty to a president of their own party. This cluster of Senate stories should give us hope that our government has the capacity to protect us from the incompetence of the current administration.

There is also some hope in the late week power shift at the White House, but the signals are mixed.

The departure of Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff and the president’s decision to replace him with John Kelly, the current secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, might be a sign the president understands he needs to change his management style. Retired General Kelly is a 45 year veteran of the U.S. Marines. One would think his strengths are discipline and organization, two virtues lacking in the Trump White House. The question is, does the president see either as a virtue?

Trump may have already sabotaged Kelly in the role of chief of staff with his appointment of Anthony Scaramucci as director of communications. Scaramucci was hired with the understanding that he would report directly to the president and has wasted no time establishing himself as Trump’s bouncer, protector and cheerleader. In less than a week on the job, Scaramucci has demonstrated his intent to embrace and perpetuate the chaos Trump apparently thrives on. Chaos is a state Kelly should be trying to limit as chief of staff.

While hoping the Kelly appointment may offer a turning point, it is also important to say that Kelly himself has, on occasion, offered his loyalty in a manner the president may not deserve.

As homeland security secretary, Kelly had to defend the president’s first Muslim travel ban even though he was kept out of the loop on its surprise implementation. This was an early humiliation for a cabinet secretary and Kelly seemed too eager to go along.

Kelly has also shown a willingness to defend Trump in the face of the indefensible and to suck up when opportunity presents itself. Back in March, a few days after President Trump accused President Obama of tapping the phones at Trump Tower, Kelly was on CNN backing up the president’s outlandish claim. He told Wolf Blitzer, “If the president of the United States said that, he’s got his reasons.” This is the type of unquestioning loyalty the president apparently seeks, but it is not the kind of loyalty desired in the position of chief of staff. Kelly went further on CNN that day, using double-speak to both deny personal knowledge and accuse the former president. “I don’t pretend to even guess as to what the motivation may have been for the previous administration to do something like that,” he said.

There is another Kelly moment that will be remembered by the news media as he starts his new job. In May, while attending the Coast Guard Academy graduation in New London, Connecticut with Trump, the president was presented with a sword as a gift. When the president sat down next to Kelly, the secretary was heard whispering, “you can use that on the press.” Trump smiled and nodded affirmatively. The moment shows Kelly understands how to ingratiate himself with the president, but the same moment will never be forgotten by the White House press corps. As trivial as it seems, when the moment is right, the press will turn its own blade on Kelly.

Whatever Kelly’s management skills he is still faced with a fundamental challenge. The president only has one speed and one strategy: Full speed ahead toward grabbing anything he thinks he wants or needs. The president continues to surround himself with advisers, including his children and son-in-law, with no experience in government. And now, he has hired on the added protection of the runt brute Scaramucci.

There is a big cultural difference between New York City and Washington, D.C. and that difference is at the root of many of Trump’s challenges as president. He comes from a world where power is measured in money, in what you can buy and perhaps who you can buy off. Power in Washington is measured in terms of the position you hold and how that position allows you to use the levers of government to influence big issues.

New York City power is brash. Washington, D.C. power is subtle. New York City power takes. Washington, D.C. power waits.

Scaramucci telegraphed how he intended to use his power in an interview with the New Yorker when he threatened the jobs of Priebus, White House strategist Steve Bannon and any one else who got in his way. For all the criticism Sean Spicer took as he tried to perform the impossible job of press secretary to President Trump, at least he had the integrity to stand up against the hiring of Scaramucci and step down when the president made it happen.

President Trump did almost nothing to offer Spicer, and later Priebus, a face-saving way out. No one would be surprised if in the weeks ahead he targets them in one of his early morning Twitter tirades, because Trump has no decency.

In contrast, when Spicer and Priebus left the West Wing, they thanked the president for the opportunity to serve. Scaramucci and Trump think they have won, but Spicer, Priebus and a growing number of Capitol Hill Republicans, know the contest is not over. They will wait for their opportunity to strike.

Trump continues to isolate himself from people who can truly help. He continues to place his confidence in the thoughtless rhetoric that got him elected. He continues to cultivate enemies rather than friends. He continues to give the masters of the culture of Washington, D.C. the tools they need to marginalize his presidency even as he thinks he is at the height of his power.

As to the state of affairs in the Trump administration there is only a smidgen of hope for improvement. The first six months has revealed to America and the world who and what President Trump is. The most hopeful have relied on Kelly, H.R. McMaster, Rex Tillerson and James Mattis to be the adults in the Trump playhouse protecting us from the first child in chief. But even if you subscribe to that survival strategy you must admit it is only a mask.

Hiding behind the mask there is still Trump, his family and his paid sycophants. In Kelly’s new role he can only bring to the White House the illusion of order, because true Trump is always lurking in the Oval Office with no capacity to change.



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Dean Pagani

Dean Pagani

Photojournalism for Brands and Ideas.