Q&A: Ask Amber from The Fix

Oct 17, 2017

If it's lunchtime Tuesday, it's Fix politics time. What do you want to know?

But I've also written three stories already this morning! About John McCain and Rep. Tom Marino and opioids. What do you want to know?

Call me biased but It seemed like for most of the Obama administration the media would blame the President for his inability to get gun control legislation, immigration legislation, environmental legislation, etc... With Trump, the media seems to have bought into this narrative that it's not his fault Congress won't pass anything, it's their own fault. Is that fair?

I think it's very hard to make these broad statements about "the media" without defining what do you mean. Do you include conservative, blatantly pro-Trump blogs like Breitbart in that? Left-leaning TV hosts like Rachel Maddow? Only "mainstream" media like Washington Post, New York Times, USA Today, NBC, ABC, CBS, NPR, etc...?

Also, I disagree with your assessment there's a prevailing narrative out there that it's Congress's fault Republicans have no major legislative victories so far. We've written multiple stories at The Fix explaining why the president shares some blame, too. 

Since I've been pestering you about the return of The Line, I just wanted to say: Thanks for this weekend's edition.

You're most welcome! I was thinking of you as I set aside time (harder to do in these days of constant news) to get it done. What do you think of Claire McCaskill as the most vulnerable senator? 

It's clear that Trump is a terrible president. Who do the Dem's have in the wings that could challenge him and win? Please don't say Bernie Sanders - those 80,000 people in WI, OH, MI and PA, many of them over 50, are not going to vote for free college for everyone.

Bernie Sanders.

And, according to The Fix's Aaron Blake, Joe Biden, Sen. Chris Murphy, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, California Gov. Jerry Brown, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Cory Booker (sensing a pattern?), New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Sen. Sherrod Brown, former Mass governor Deval Patrick, Sen. Tim Kaine, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, pick a billionaire (Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah, Howard Schultz, Bob Iger, Sheryl Sanderg, Mark Cuban) ... and that's the short list.

Do we have any indication at all that Pence is hurt/angry/fed up with the way Trump treats and speaks about him? I know being vice president of the US is the number 2 job in the world, but (if you'll excuse my middle school humor) it must feel like a pile of number 2 right now.

Middle school humor is always welcome in a newsroom. 

I don't know what's going on in his head. But publicly, Pence seems to have fully bought into the strategy of: unquestionable loyalty (except when it comes to the Trump campaign's meetings with Russians). Some of his own staff is leading the charge passing blame to the Hill for not getting anything done. 


Is his Congressional Seat in any trouble, too?

I don't think so. It's pretty solidly Republican. But on the edge of all this is Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tenn., also a player in WaPo's/60 Minutes investigation. She's running for a Senate seat in Tennessee, and while I don't yet know how this story will affect her, it's certainly not the kind of press she wanted.

which just doesn't make sense at ALL. But "Chuck and Nancy" aren't going to feel a lot like helping out Mitch and Paul with the executive order gutting Obamacare and the general wisdom is that they can't pass a budget without democratic help unless they do some kind of massive cut to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to make the Freedom Caucus happy. I just don't see how there is time for that before December 8th. And here is one more thing. Even with an unconventional president, there is always a way to avoid a shut down. But with this particular president, I don't see a way to get out of it unless he gets pretty much exactly what he wants. And if that was on the table, the shut down wouldn't happen. Is there any talk about another CR? Wouldn't that mean they couldn't pass tax cuts without getting to 60 or ending the filibuster completely? Oh, and how bad are the visuals of having White House Christmas parties when the people working them aren't getting paid?

A shut down in December is more likely if one thing happens: Trump demands Congress send him a spending bill that funds some of his wall. 

Other than that, the usual partisan divides in Congress (conservatives and liberals who want to make a policy stand) are troublesome, but leaders have years of practice navigating them to avoid a shut down. 

Why doesn't the stock market reflect the uncertainty of NAFTA's future? Texas is the state with the most jobs tied to NAFTA. Seven of the ten states who export the most to Mexico and Canada voted for Trump. Aren't they worried what happens if NAFTA negotiations fall apart? Seems like two factions that back Trump - Wall Street and Trump voters - have a lot to lose if NAFTA collapses.

Yeah I agree with you that the possibility of NAFTA unraveling is an undersold story that we could all be paying more attention to. Apparently Wall Street's attention is elsewhere -- like, say, threat of nuclear war with North Korea. I follow The Post's Damian Paletta for smart takes on the intersection of economics and politics. 

Is there actually anything in Trump's brain that doesn't involve doing the opposite of anything Obama did?

He definitely thinks it's a winning strategy -- at least among his base. 

Let me echo those that are thanking you for the top 10 senate races line. Admittedly, I got high amusement that Josh Mandel is running AGAIN in Ohio. As a D, I am happy to see him as the potential nominee, but I am surprised the state party doesn't tell him to take a walk.

Yeah, Mandel has his skeletons (he expressed support for an alt-right blogger). But Republicans have also struggled some with recruitment in the era of Trump, even in states like Ohio where the Democratic incumbent is vulnerable.

The Republicans are fully united. What a load of manure. At least he dropped it in the Rose Garden where it could be used for fertilizer. On a more serious note he comes up with false statements so often I think we are in danger of getting numb. I know the MSM picks up on the whoppers but the public as a whole will start ignoring most of the lies.

I agree that there's a risk people (or politicians) become used to a president who makes so many false claims so often. The Washington Post's fact-checking team recently calculated President Trump has made 1,318 false or misleading claims over 263 days.  That's extraordinary. 

Call me a dreamer but I hoped somewhere between three congressional committees and Robert Mueller's investigations, somewhere between his incompetence, cravenness and corruption we might get Trump out of office within the first eighteen months. With his base sticking to him despite an anschlus of bad news and congressional Republicans caring more about staying in office than the safety or well being of our Democracy, what hope, if any, is left for people like me?

I think his poll numbers need to drop to the low 20s to give congressional Republicans political incentive to leave him (without political retribution). Right now, the only person speaking out with something to lose is Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), and he's arguably more vulnerable in his 2018 reelection because of it. (He's facing a challenge on the right propped up by pro-Trump forces and he has a serious challenger on the left.)

Realistically, what's the point in time by which a challenger for a seat in the House needs to declare and start campaigning? Obviously there are filing deadlines, but I think most campaigns 'need' to begin well before that if they hope to have name recognition and money.

Yeah, agreed. I'd say over the next few months is when we'll see most of the serious candidates get in. 

Islamic State has been driven from Raqqa, That's good, but the city is now rubble. In the meantime, it looks like relations between the Kurds and Iraqi military, both armed and trained by the US, are getting worse. With the exit of IS and escalating tensions between Iraqis and Kurds, is the next wave of sectarian violence set to begin? Since we invaded Iraq, it seems like it set off an endless spiral of war and suffering with no end in sight.

So there's this great foreign policy blog at The Post called WorldViews

So if I am hearing the messages correctly, the GOP must pass a tax cut, even if ot blows up the deficit, doesn't help the middle class, is a windfall for the wealthy...just because they promised to?

More like: The GOP needs to pass tax cuts that they can reasonably argue benefit the middle class, not just the wealthy. Right now they only have a plan that benefits the wealthy. And, yes, many proponents of getting tax reform done have set aside their argument that it should be deficit neutral. 

What does it take for Doug Jones to beat Roy Moore?

A miracle. And millions of dollars. And national Democrats to jump in ASAP. I'm not ruling it out -- some of his supporters recently told me we'll be "very surprised" with the results. I think he gets closer than a Democrat has in Alabama. But I just have a very hard time seeing a Democrat winning statewide in one of the reddest states in the nation

How many seats do you see Democrats picking up? Over/under 8.5?

According to Dem strategists I've talked to.... around 5. But they sure would like some 17 that are vulnerable.

Why is it imploding? Why isn't the President doing anything about it? Can the Bipartisan Murray/Alexander committee present a Fix in time?

Well, Obamacare could implode because Trump just ripped away subsidies that health insurance companies rely on to keep the individual markets up and running and affordable.

Trump has suggested -- and his allies basically said -- he thinks it's a political strategy to let it implode, which could bring everyone in Congress back to the negotiating table.

I don't know. The markets are likely already in turmoil from all the uncertainty. 

The heartbreaking number of people who have posted "me too" has me wondering about the status of the numerous actions against Donald Trump that surfaced during the election. Are any of these still active?

Absolutely heartbreaking, I agree.

Yes. We recently learned that an accuser, Summer Zervos, a former contestant on "The Apprentice," has subpoenaed his campaign for any document or communications about her and “all documents concerning any woman who asserted that Donald J. Trump touched her inappropriately.”

Candidate Trump denied the allegations. On Monday, Trump called this "fake news."

I work in the field, so there's little that aggravates me more than all of this talk about tax cuts. Want to change the code to eliminate deductions or exclude income? Fine. But I don't really think the middle class is over-taxed. Want to give them a cut? Change the way payroll taxes are calculated. And PLEASE, do not cut taxes on the rich. Maybe define rich a little differently - the problem with being in DC is how incomes (and the cost of living) are so much more than in middle America.

Basically, nothing you said is part of the mainstream debate in Washington right now. 

The collusion investigation -- if anybody actually is doing anything about it -- is basically dead as a factor in elections, right? I haven't heard anybody who is running bringing it up recently, which to me signals that it's a dead end as a campaign issue.

I think Democrats are running on what Trump has done since president (getting out of the Paris climate change deal, his comments in Charlottesville, banning transgender people from the military) rather than an allegation. 

Bannon was on the record as saying Trump's EO was really designed to sabotage Obamacare. I think that was obvious to anyone paying attention, but do you think it was a mistake to explicitly admit to it?

The Fix's Aaron Blake does. It undercuts Trump's official claim that the insurance subsidies were just lining the pockets of insurance companies.


I agree, but I'd add that Trump has more or less acknowledged this in tweets after versions of Obamacare repeal failed to pass in Congress. Here's what he tweeted in July: "As I have always said, let ObamaCare fail and then come together and do a great healthcare plan. Stay tuned!."

The GOP base have been loudly angry about Obamacare, immigration, etc., but have white working class voters been demanding tax cuts? Or is that GOP politicians responding to wealthy donors and corporate interests?

I think everyone likes tax cuts, right? 

Hi Amber, What are you hearing, if anything, about Dems' intentions of doing away with the debt ceiling entirely during the next negotiation on this topic? Seems like they could appeal to Trump's ego by (on the surface) giving away some of their leverage. And long term, this is a smart play for a future Dem president, by helping to sideline the "Freedom" Caucus.

I *believe* their target in December budget negotiations is to find a way to protect dreamers from deportations. Of course, they'll likely be working with Republicans in Congress now that Trump has basically closed the door on making a deal with Dems.

It's reported on other news/opinion sites that SoS Tillerson may leave the Administration, be replaced by current CIA Director Pompeo, with the President nominating Sen. Cotton to the latter position. Do you have any info on this? If true, will Sen. Cotton breeze through confirmation hearings? Thanks.

I have no intel on this, but yes, Sen. Tom Cotton would probably breeze through any confirmation hearings for any Cabinet post. Senators tend to give deference to their own. I'm also not ruling out that, down the line, Trump picks Cotton for something. They've been talking on immigration and ending the Iran deal. 

So it appears no one in the Trump White House except Trump wants him to pull out of the deal...assuming Congress doesn't do anything (a fair assumption), is there anyone who can talk him out of it?

I don't know that anyone can talk Trump out of (or into) anything. As some former advisers told my colleagues Ashley Parker and Greg Jaffe recently, sometimes Trump listens to his aides' advice. Sometimes he doesn't. 

But your assumption that Congress doesn't do anything to end the Iran deal is probably a safe one. (I explain why here.)

So, I read the Post online (obviously), USA Today, the NY Times until I hit the pay wall and I'm a big fan of the 11th Hour with Brian Williams. But, so many Americans are not. They listen to Hannity, who will say he's not a journalist but certainly impersonates one and does it well, or to Maddow. Or not at all. I submit media Echo Chambers are a major part of the ignorance and resurgent racism we're seeing these days. To quote a fallen Echo Chamber-ist: "What say you?"

A digital subscription to The Washington Post (no pay walls!) costs less than I pay for a cup of coffee every day. 

Thanks for answering my first question. As a follower, don't you think this is a risky and amoral strategy? Even if it does eventually work realistically it's going to take years and there will be a real human toll in that time.

Yes. Trump arguably owns what happens next in the health care market. He didn't just work with Congress to do something that health-care experts say could send the market into a self-fulfilling death spiral, he acted unilaterally to do it. Then one of his former advisers says it's a political strategy. Trump could very much own this.

Trump has failed to enforce the Russia sanctions legislation passed this year by Congress. Any way he can be forced to?

I think that's an unanswered question. One option available to Congress is to pass a resolution urging him to. Or even censuring him for not following the law. But we're getting ahead of ourselves -- first there will probably be behind-the-scenes negotiations. 

If Menendez is found not guilty (or the judge kicks the case in light of the McDonnell precedent), does he run for re-election? Does he face a primary? Who runs on the GOP side?

If he's not found guilty, the expectation is he'd run again in Nov 2018 and win, say political analysts there. It wouldn't be the first time New Jersey voters have voted for a politician who faced corruption allegations. 

In 2020, Susan Collins 1) runs for re-election to the Senate as a Republican, 2) runs for re-election to the Senate as an independent, 3) runs for re-election to the Senate as a Democrat, or 4) retires?

1) or 4). Probably not 3). 

Common characteristics of a failing state include a central government so weak or ineffective that it has an inability to raise taxes or other support... While it is true that the proximate cause of New Mexico’s fiscal crisis is a sharp drop in oil and gas tax revenue, it is also true that the state’s vulnerability to declining energy prices stems from earlier decisions — supported by both Democrats and Republicans — to dismantle major portions of our more stable, non-energy tax base https://www.abqjournal.com/927981/legislature-needs-to-rebuild-tax-base.html

And Kansas Republican lawmakers overrode their governor to raise taxes after a failed slash taxes/trickle-down conservative experiment there. 

So let me rephrase: Every politician likes to SELL a tax cut. 

Your story talks about what Congress may or may not do. My question is, why is the House involved at all? Isn't this a treaty, which is the sole province of the Senate?

Good question. It's technically not a treaty, because Obama didn't call it that, so he wouldn't have to have the Senate vote on an up-or-down vote to approve ratification of a treaty, which means it's not the domain of just the Senate.

Congress did work out a deal with Obama to allow them review of any changes to the deal -- like what Trump wants now. 

If Trump really believes he could shoot someone on 5th ave and his base would stick with him why does he spend so much political capital tending to them? Wouldn't he be better off making deals with Dems and trying to be a Bill Clinton type since his base will support whatever he does? He could throw them some cultural red meat every once in a while and make establishment GOPers like Ryan and McConnell the bad guys.

Some of his advisers have certainly suggested he branch out. So far that's fallen on deaf ears -- or, in the case of a deal on dreamers, Trump has changed his mind. 

Amber, can you briefly explain the mechanics of how a group of what - 30? - House GOP reps. can effectively hold hostage any legislation as long as Republicans have the majority? And isn't the Hastert rule a self-inflicted wound/limitation on this front? Thanks.

Well, two ways:

1. In the House, a majority can pass legislation. But Republicans don't have a majority that can sustain a 30+ defection of conservatives. So they need Democrats to join in, and in the case of repealing Obamacare, they most certainly weren't going to.

2. The Hastert Rule has its purposes, say lawmakers -- mainly to keep the GOP caucus in line by promising that a leader won't bring a bill to the floor unless it has the support of a majority of the party. It's also an informal rule, so technically Paul Ryan could violate it anytime. 

It's a bit early to be thinking about this, but at some point Trump will no longer be president. What do you think happens to the GOP then? Will it be able to go back to how it was in the "time before"? Or is it permanently fractured? And do they have any hope of expanding their appeal to POC given Trumps racial antagonism?

Ask me this again in 4-7 years. It's a good one!

Kate Middleton and Prince William just officially announced they are expecting baby No. 3 in April! So much royal news to catch up on. Thanks for a fantastic chat as always -- super smart questions today. I'll see y'all next Tuesday, the 24th. 

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Amber Phillips
Amber Phillips writes about politics for The Fix. She was previously the one-woman D.C. bureau for the Las Vegas Sun and has reported from Boston and Taiwan.
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