The Fix's Ask Aaron: The week in politics

Oct 13, 2017

The Fix's senior reporter Aaron Blake chats with readers in his weekly politics chat series.

It's always a happy Friday here at Ask Aaron -- at least for me.

What's on your mind?

We have a new (highly anticipated) ranking of the top 10 Senate races via Fix-'ber.

We have Trump's big moves on Iran and Obamacare.

We have Puerto Rico and some harsh reviews of Trump's response.

What else?


Rather surprised there haven't been more announced retirements, and Sen Collins can now be taken off the watch list. What Members do you have on your watch list?

A big reason -- I think -- is that there simply aren't many Republicans in competitive states who might be worried about a midterm under Trump. We basically just have Heller and Flake, who are both young-ish and only in their first terms.

Has a reporter ever asked Trump why he doesn’t sue NBC (or the many other news organizations he regularly accuses) for libel/ defamation?

It's a fair question. But to play devil's advocate: Just because a story is wrong doesn't make it defamatory. And there is a very high bar to clear on this when it comes to a public figure.

What happens if Congress doesn't act or fails to agree on anything?

That's a good question. It sounds like Congress will do something, whether amending the deal or simply slapping on new sanctions. But inaction can never be ruled out. 

What do you predict will be the percentage of Trump’s base will place the blame for their future healthcare woes on Trump and his executive actions and what percentage will blame the “problems of Obamacare”?

I predict 25% will blame the GOP Congress, 65% will blame the law's innate problems, and 10% will blame Trump. I know others disagree, but this is what history suggests.

On Thursday, Trump's Chief of Staff John Kelly proclaimed "I’m not quitting today." Well, isn't Friday PM the traditional "take out the trash" time, in hopes that news stories won't attract quite as much attention as they would during mid-week? If Kelly's still in office (I'm typing this before the chat), want to start a pool on how soon before he's gone?

I doubt he'd have done that briefing on Thursday if he was on his way out the door. Truly.

How do you see this playing out politically? Isn't this going to disproportionately hurt Trump's voters? Other than reflexively doing anything anti-Obama, I don't see the politics of this move at all.

If Congress passes a fix, Trump will take credit for forcing its hand. If Congress doesn't, he'll attack it an let it (including GOP leaders) shoulder the blame.

Just remember that all Trump has is his base. Even if 60-65% wind up disliking this, that's basically no change for him.

Are reporters now triple-checking anonymous sources from the White House in view of how often the President and his communications staff have mangled the truth? I ask in relation to Gen. Kelly’s statement yesterday throwing shade on anonymous sources at the White House. Thanks. Peggy/Takoma Park, Md.

I know that The Post's accounts of the White House will often have far more than three sources -- often more than a dozen.

Any idea why he ruled out a presidential run in 2020?

Look: Maybe he really doesn't want to. But I think we've gotten to a point where politicians realize they can rule it out and change their mind later on. Obama did it. Plenty of others too.

But Murphy needs to get better known. So if he did want to run, I'm not sure why he's be playing this game.

Any statement from Trump on California wildfires, loss of life and property yet? Or will they get the same treatment as Puerto Rico because they voted overwhelmingly for Clinton? All natural disasters don't appear to be equal in Trumpworld.

He did mention the wildfires in his speech this morning.

Is there any way Facebook, Twitter, or Google will be held accountable for their part in the 2016 election? They all seem to have great power over people's flow of info and make tons of money off it, without taking responsibility for slipshod oversight of their companies' operations and the resulting fallout. Can Americans pursue a class action suit over this fiasco?

I truly think we are heading toward much more talk about how Facebook changed the election -- perhaps even moreso than Russia. The amount of misinformation that flowed freely is a huge liability for them, and I have little doubt it had some kind of impact.

I think we may one day look back on the idea of Zuckerberg running for president and laugh.

Am I right in thinking that a bunch of Republicans in Washington are just waiting for one of their number to make a move against Trump to give them cover to do the same?

There is certainly some of that. Nobody wants to be the first to jump whole-hog into denouncing Trump.

But it's also a calculation that doesn't look great right now. Ted Cruz tried it at the convention and paid a price. McCain's numbers among Republicans are way done. Same with Flake. Same with McConnell.

I read two articles in The Fix this morning (one by you and one by Amber Phillips). Neither mentioned that the Obamacare subsidies were determined to be illegal by a Federal judge. Isn't that relevant to the discussion of Trump's actions? The judge wrote: “The Affordable Care Act unambiguously appropriates money for Section 1401 premium tax credits but not for Section 1402 reimbursements to insurers." And “Such an appropriation cannot be inferred. None of Secretaries’ extra-textual arguments—whether based on economics, ‘unintended’ results, or legislative history—is persuasive.”

This is a totally fair point and is worthy of inclusion.

But it also wasn't the final word on the matter. The Justice Department decided to stop defending the subsidies, in essence. It could have tried, but it decided suddenly that they were illegal -- after nine months.

I'm seeing a lot of rhetoric from Republicans about North Korea that reminds me of the run-up to the Iraq war. It seems like the public doesn't understand how bad the consequences of an attack would be. Why isn't *more* attention being paid? Do people in Washington not believe the administration will actually let a war happen? Or do they not know how to deal with it?

I think there has been plenty of attention? We write regularly about how Trump's rhetoric on this is above and beyond anything we've seen. North Korea has also stepped up its provocations, which our team is constantly on top of.

I think you should clarify that the anonymous sources are anonymous to the public, not to the person doing the reporting, right? I mean, you guys know who you are talking to. You just can't tell us. I think that some people imagine that every source that is described as anonymous is like Watergate/Deep Throat.

This is true. Every anonymous source should be examined for potential motives and axes to grind. And that's a process that happens. The downside is the public can't verify all of that.

Ah, but Trump's much-vaunted (by him) business modus operandi is to sue first, worry about viability of the case later.

True. But I would argue his M.O. is mostly to threaten lawsuits and never actually file them. Like with the women who accused him of sexual assault.

I worry that other countries are starting to view the US as a joke of a TV reality show. Please tell me I am wrong.

It's clear that other countries have very little regard from Trump -- and have from the very beginning. This poll tells the tale.

Seth Meyers reported during his "Closer Look" segment last night that President Trump now claims to have shot a 73 for 18 holes of golf. One can most reasonably infer that either Mr. Mulligan was in his foursome, or Trump's been spending too much time on the golf course lately. Or he's starting to verge into dictator territory with such grandiose claims. Doesn't Trump realize that he's only making himself look more and more ridiculous and pompous?

Maybe they were all Par-3s? 

I noticed that you did not mention Ryan.

Ryan's numbers haven't declined as much -- partially, I think, because Trump hasn't gone after him as hard, and partially, i think, because he's better at crafting his image than McConnell.

I have noticed them being proactive on anything. Are they assuming again that being anti Trump will be enough? I don't think it will be. Everyone lives inside their own little bubble but leaders inside and out of the Democratic party have a very small bubble. NY, DC, CA.

Being anti-Trump is the comfort blanket that could really come back to hurt Democrats. They thought it would be enough in 2016, and it wasn't. They have some hugely important governor's races that will determine their future for the next decade in 2018, and they better focus like a laser on them.

Are people really taking this idea seriously now?

I'm not sure many are. But I think it may seem even more patently ridiculous than it might now.

No, no, no. Contrary to what your earlier questioner wrote, the cost-sharing subsidies were NOT "determined to be illegal by a Federal judge." The question was whether payments could be made in the absence of appropriations. It most certainly would not have been illegal to have made the payments if money for them was appropriated, and even if the payments are not made the insurers may still be entitled to them (by suing the government -- the cases are making their way through the courts).

I think we're splitting hairs here. The judge said the executive branch couldn't make them, which is what the Trump administration is now saying it won't do. Congress can still make them if it wants to.

It's amazing that anyone could have lost to him, but Hillary has just that talent.

I'm curious to find out, in the future, if all presidential candidates are just that unpopular, or if 2016 was unique.

Have read reports that Trump and associates expect a number of people to be in the Presidential general election. Given the expectation that votes will be split a number of ways, they are betting that Trump's base will be sufficient to elect him to a 2nd term. Hence everything he does will be with a thought to solidifying his base, not to extending his support. What are your thoughts that his base will be sufficient in number in 2020 to carry the election?

I think whoever the third-party or indy candidate would be who runs and splits up the vote will find themselves ruthlessly attacked by Democrats -- unless they are right-leaning.

Hi Aaron, It seems like a lot of my fellow progressives, along with many other observers, attribute a sizeable portion of the GOP's House majority to gerrymandering, compared to the reality that many of us (myself included) simply choose to live in large cities, which "wastes" our votes by running up the score in non-competitive districts. Gerrymandering is, to some extent, a fixable condition. Self-sorting and urban-living preferences, less so. All that said, using ballpark figures, how much of the GOP's 24 seat majority would you attribute to gerrymandering *alone*? Thanks.

I couldn't agree more with this analysis. As I wrote a while back, it's time to stop blaming so much on gerrymandering.

My rough estimate -- being put on the spot -- is that if you created perfectly nonpartisan districts and each side won the districts the leaned its way, the GOP would still have a 25-seat-ish majority -- about half of where they are now.

Me too, but it was miniature golf (putt putt to some of the country)

Sounds like you need to work on your short game.

Despite Trump's wild claim, he lost the popular vote by some 3 million. He's only President because the Electoral College gives less-populous states disproportionate weight in terms of votes.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: We cannot say with certainty that Trump would have lost a popular vote election. The race was run according to the electoral college. It makes any claims about how "Clinton would have won" purely hypothetical.

Is that a "little hands" joke?

There's no problem, believe me.

At the risk of entering the prediction game post-2016, isn't it more likely that the "spoiler" candidate is someone on the center-right (e.g. Kasich) who takes votes from Trump? One thing that probably doesn't get enough attention is that there was so much baggage - fairly or otherwise - associated with Hillary, the Clintons writ large, her Senate votes, etc. that simply doesn't apply to anyone currently in the Dem mix right now. My sense is that if preventing Hillary from becoming president is no longer a motivating factor, some of the folks who voted for Trump in 2016 will look elsewhere.

I still almost wonder if a Kasich-like candidate might hurt the Dems' chances of winning by pulling middle-of the-road voters.

AARON BLAKE: "Being anti-Trump is the comfort blanket that could really come back to hurt Democrats. They thought it would be enough in 2016, and it wasn't. They have some hugely important governor's races that will determine their future for the next decade in 2018, and they better focus like a laser on them."

Aaron, what exactly is your evidence that Democrats are not focusing on those races? It sure hasn't shown up in the Post's reporting on the Virginia race, and my understanding is that the New Jersey race is as close to being in the bag as possible. I'm a fan of your reporting, but I have to say that this recurring tic of yours to say something that appears cautionary but is really a cheap shot, so no one can accuse you of going easy on Democrats, is REALLY getting old. You've do it several times in almost every chat.

1) I'm not here to create some false sense of balance. All of my analysis is honest. So I resent the implication.

2) I didn't say they weren't focused on those races. I'm simply saying that they can't count on anti-Trump momentum to carry them across the finish line. And the Democrats do have a way of being asleep at the wheel on some key downballot races. It's why they have less than half as many governor's offices as Republicans. It's why they keep getting destroyed at the state legislative level even as Congress is reasonably close. 

What's hypothetical about 3 million extra votes?

Those 3 million extra votes were earned in a lengthy campaign in which both candidates focused only on swing states -- not all 50. The GOP made almost no effort to win votes in California, for instance, where the Senate race was between two Democrats and there wasn't much reason for Republicans to turn out to vote.

It would have been a different campaign. Would Clinton have won a popular vote election? It's certainly more likely than not. But we can't say with certainty.

Is your endeavor about fixing things?

To some degree, I suppose! It's easier to fix things if you know where they stand.

I think it was unique in this aspect: the Dems nominated the only person who could have lost to Trump, and the Reps nominated the only person who could beat Clinton.

Trump is the only person who could beat Clinton? I'm not sure about that at all. Also, I think Rod Blagojevich probably would have lost to Trump.

Thank you. That really seems to be a journalism fad these days. Even PBS is doing it... they had Bob Massey as a "pro-coal voice" on the other day!

People may not always agree with my conclusions, but I'm not a big fan of questioning my motivations for writing what I write. The one thing I can promise readers is that it will always be my genuine analysis. Sometimes it casts Dems in a good lights, and sometimes it doesn't.

Interesting. Have you done this analysis at the local level? The problem is the feeder system as well--that the state level districts are so gerrymandered that there are more viable candidates in some parties versus others. So you get state legislatures that are not representative of the population.

Yeah that's a big part of it -- and it absolutely dismantles the Democrats' farm system.

Do you think, if the political winds were shifted, trump could and would have run as a Democrat?

I don't think his style would have played nearly as well. He wouldn't have won the nomination.

I think he's the only one of the candidates who would have gone after her the way he did. All the other competitors (maybe not including Christie) were intimidated by her and her media supporters. You don't beat a bully by being respectful.

Fair. But Hillary was very unpopular even before the 2016 campaign -- including back in 2008 when she ran. Part of her unpopularity was just baked-in. Her time as SoS was an aberration.

What could they actually be doing here to counteract Trump? (Aside from starting to win elections, of course.) But the moment, it seems like their hands are tied as the minority party in the House, Senate and presidency. They can (and should) rail against Trump, but what could they be doing?

I think their biggest problem is a leadership vacuum. I'm not really sure who is setting the tone on policy, etc. -- who the leaders are.

Oh please -- your old friend Boogie chose the name so that we political junkies could get our daily/hourly fix of news and such that we all crave!

Who? Boogie doesn't ring a bell.

Packers vs Vikings at noon on Sunday. Can I get a 'go Pack'?

I don't really care that much, but the Packers are from Wisconsin and Wisconsin is bad. So go Vikes.

As absurd as it might seem, I seem to remember a number of political reporters calling Donald Trump's candidacy absurd a few times...

It's true. Nothing can be totally dismissed anymore. We've all been humbled too many times.

Cynical political question here. Do you think it is a wise strategy for Republicans to try and tie the Harvey Weinstein allegations to Democrats, or could it backfire and bring back into focus the allegations that have been made against Trump?

They aren't pushing as hard as you'd expect, and there's a very important reason for that. 

Thanks everyone for coming out. Your questions are always my favorite part of a Friday. 

Let's do it again next week!

In This Chat
Aaron Blake
Aaron Blake is a senior political reporter, writing for The Fix. A Minnesota native and graduate of the University of Minnesota, Aaron has also written about politics for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and The Hill newspaper. Aaron lives with his family and trusty dog, Mauer, in Northern Virginia.
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