Q&A: Ask Amber from The Fix

Oct 24, 2017

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

Senator Corker is very outspoken today. His assessment of Trump is blunt and negative. Do you think this signals something bigger in the works behind the scene from Senate Republicans or is Corker just fed up?

His assessment of Trump is blunt, negative and very pointed: He's essentially arguing Trump is the reason Republicans haven't gotten much done and we're in escalating tensions with North Korea and world leaders talk about the U.S. behind our backs. That's remarkable coming from a senator who represents the GOP foreign policy community in Congress. 

Behind the scenes, other Senate Republicans don't necessarily disagree with Corker's assessment of the president as dangerous, out of control and a cause of debasement. (I rank Republicans who are more critical of Trump here.)

But I don't think we'll see a wave of GOP senators speak out like Corker is because, 1) They want to keep their jobs and win elections 2) They want to keep the peace as much as possible to get tax reform done, which will aid in No. 1

What are the signs we should be looking for on "tax reform"? Are there any deadlines, preliminary votes, etc.? I get that there are endless "negotiations," but until there's a bill on the floor it is hard to stay focused.

Good question! You're absolutely right that tax "reform" (not just expensive tax cuts) is a long way from reality. I outline the 6-7 steps Republicans need to take here.

Basically, Republicans are following the same playbook they did on health care. So look for a bill to pass the House, perhaps by Thanksgiving, and then the real test of whether tax reform can be come a reality will happen in the Senate.  

Amber, I implore you and everyone one of your journalistic friends to remember this Senate budget bill the next time Democrats are in charge of Washington and the GOP starts screaming about deficits. Show them this budget bill and ask them to explain their hypocrisy.

It really is remarkable that Republicans are moving to agree to a budget that will blow a hole in the deficit, by adding $1.5T in tax cuts over the next decade. There are still some Republicans who want to see a deficit-neutral tax bill. But Republicans simply don't have the votes for that, because for every tax cut you give someone, to make it deficit neutral, you have to close someone else's tax deduction. 

http://www.trumptwitterarchive.com/archive/ambassador/ttff

That link didn't come through for me. So I'll answer the question I think you're asking: Can we bring up Trump's VERY vocal criticisms of how the Obama administration handled the deadly Benghazi attacks now that his military needs to answer how four Americans died in what was supposed to be a routine patrol in Niger. 

It's not apples to apples, but with that caveat, I say yes. Trump repeatedly accused Secretary of State Clinton for characterizing how they died. "She looked the families of the fallen in the eye and lied," he said shortly before the election. 

Well now, the U.S.'s top general came out and publicly acknowledged that the families of the fallen -- and the American people -- need answers about what happened in Niger.

The mainstream media basically stopped covering Rush Limbaugh (I actually blanked on his name for a minute and had to google right wing radio host) if they stop mentioning crazy Bannon then he will go away and I will forget his name too. They are so clueless, such clickbait stuff. Or maybe the drones that watch this garbage all day are.

Yeah but the intolerable media can't just stop covering people because some find them distasteful or clueless. Steve Bannon is a former chief adviser to the president. All accounts are the two men still talk. If he gets enough help from pro-Trump donors like the Mercer family, he could really threaten Senate Republicans up for reelection next year. In other words, he's WORTH covering. 

Hi Amber - long-time WaPo reader, big fan of the Fix. I'd like to talk about a frustration in how things are presented. One problem we have in this country is that people don't read, and miss a lot of what you cover. One example is your coverage of tax reform and the budget. You've been very comprehensive, so someone like me (that likes seeing a lot of detail) has a good understanding of what is being proposed. But many people just skip long articles. I wish there was a better way to present things, more in summary form. Like "the proposed budget cuts trillions from Medicare and Medicaid so the proposed tax reform can give trillions in tax cuts" (which is true, that's what it does). But a lot of people have NO IDEA that's what's being proposed. What can be done to reach that audience?

Hi! Thanks for reading. I try to do this every day, including on my recent tax reform story, where I list out what needs to happen in 6 steps. I also have a newsletter that goes out every Monday Wednesday Friday afternoon and aims to help explain/contextualize politics in 5 minutes or less. (Sign up here! wapo.st/fix-newsletter)

In short, getting the most information to as broad a reach of people as I can is a mission of mine -- and the entire Washington Post's!

I feel that if we continue to acknowledge/react to Trump's tweets we will be drawn further and further into his world. Is there any possible way the newspapers could decide to simply ignore his tweets, the exception being matters of national security?

See my answer above on Bannon and the "intolerable media." Also, I'll point you to what former press secretary Sean Spicer said while he was still in the job of Trump's tweets: "The president is the president of the United States, so they are considered official statements by the president of the United States."

Would you ignore official presidential statements save ones that are matters of national security? 

So he’s really not running for MI Senate? Is was all a joke that some people took too seriously? Um ok but am betting that here are some sighs of relief in Michigan today

Wait did anyone take Kid Rock's flirtation with Senate politics seriously at any point? If so I'd like to meet that person.

Did he? There are a lot of reasons to enlist in the military, and I'd bet not everyone thinks about their odds of being killed in action when they sign up. These are kids signing up. Why is it so hard to simply say, "I'm sorry for your loss," and leave it at that? (That's a rhetorical question, obviously.)

To answer your rhetorical question (it's a good one and gets at the heart of why this feud with a pregnant widow of a fallen soldier has been going on so long), I'll point you to The Post's Philip Rucker and Michael Scherer, who have studied Trump and written: 

"The conflict bears all the hallmarks of a typical Trump rumble: over-broad boasts, inconsistent official accounts, tweeted name-calling, partisan attacks, aides ensnared in controversy and a steady effort to pin the blame for the whole hullabaloo on the news media."

In other words, Trump doesn't apologize.

Bannon says he's lined up primary challengers most Senate Republicans. Does Bannon have as much power to drive politics as he thinks he does? Where does the rightwing media come down on GOP infighting? Have Limbaugh, Fox, et al. picked sides?

he needs $. Millions of it. Then we can further determine if Bannon's Senate challengers are a serious threat.

That being said, even establishment Republican Senate candidates (many of them trying to unseat red-state Democrats) will acknowledge that being able to cast yourself as "anti-establishment" is worth its weight in gold, now more than ever. Just look at Roy Moore's win in Alabama. 

How tight do you think some of the collars are getting in Congress? Could you see some revelations derailing 2018 re-election bids?

Sex scandals have certainly brought down their share of politicians. But correct me if I'm wrong, so far no one in this campaign has accused a sitting member of Congress of sexual assault. 

I also think politics and celebrity is very different, even in an age where our president likes to blur those lines. 

Our White House team talked to Trump's accusers after Harvey Weinstein's swift fall and heard them ask: Why not him? "My pain is everyday," one accuser said of Trump being president. 

I think the country would be better served if we could have regular, perhaps monthly, information sessions with our elected leaders where they are in the same room. Three topics, representatives from both sides, 20 minutes each. No moderator. Just a frank and open discussion of two points of view. Because what's going on just isn't working.

You mean the CRUZ vs. SANDERS town halls aren't doing it for ya?

He did enlist, and re-enlist, and get promoted, and volunteer for special forces. The statement might be clumsy and poorly timed, but it was accurate.

Someone else asked this question, so I'll get at it here. We don't have a transcript or recording of the call, but from what I can gather, I think Trump was trying to express his version of empathy by saying it was honorable that Johnson signed up to serve in Niger, knowing he could die. 

Gen. John Kelly, Trump's chief of staff, explained last week he had coached Trump to say something to the effect of Johnson was a hero by volunteering himself for danger: “He knew what he was getting himself into, because he enlisted. There’s no reason to enlist. He enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken."

It's probably because I'm a political neophyte but I was surprised to find that a fiscal year budget could be passed by a simple majority in the Senate. Is that a normal thing? How many times in a fiscal year can budget reconciliation be used?

Well, this isn't a budget. It's a resolution expressing the will of Congress that a future budget stick to this spending blueprint. In other words, it's a blueprint. (Congress works VERY incrementally.) And so there are laxer rules on how it can pass, which is by a simple majority. (Though senators in the minority often try to derail the process by throwing in poison pill amendments at the end and forcing the majority party to take politically tough votes.)

Reconciliation (explainer here) can be used to pass legislation with a simple majority every time Congress passes a new budget resolution, which is about 2x a calendar year.

In August the Interior IG was investigating Sec. Zinke Sgt. over reports that he threatened Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, with repercussion for her healthcare vote. Last night WaPo reported that a contract worth hundreds of billions to restore power to Puerto Rico was awarded to an electrical company from Zinke's hometown. Today Politico reports Zinke helped funnel millions to "scam PACs". There have also been questions about his travel expenditures. Prior to his confirmation I remember reading a report that Zinke had ethics issues which, if memory serves were about money and travel - so maybe that should have been a red flag. Any chance he'll get in trouble for all this or will the GOP ignore it like it has all the other ethical failings of this administration?

In case anyone hasn't read it, the Washington Post investigation into a small energy company from Zinke's hometown getting a coveted and unexpected federal contract to help turn on the lights in Puerto Rico is remarkable for two reasons: 1) The quality of investigative journalism 2) The ties to Zinke that at least give this contract the appearance of potential corruption. 

In an administration that has seen several Cabinet members dinged and even felled by a perception they are above the law or above the average person, you think Zinke would want to take extra precautions to avoid exactly this kind of story. 

Hey Amber, I saw you on CBS This Morning. Nice job! Do you think future GOP pres nominees will be in the mold of Trump or do you think reasonable folks like Romney still have a shot at it?

Thanks! Oh goodness, I have no idea. I do know that at the Senate level, GOP candidates are scrambling to being perceived as an anti-establishment candidate with his/her middle finger raised toward Washington. So I could see GOP voters wanting more Trump-like nominees in future presidential elections. 

I hate to rain on the "principled objector" parade, but Corker came our early and strong for Trump, made apologies for the ensuing flood of disgraces, and, even recently, said he doesn't regret doing so. Pick a side, buddy, or shut the eff up.

Oh he's picked his side. He told reporters he regrets supporting Trump during the campaign -- and remember, Corker did stop briefing Trump on foreign policy during the campaign because he said Trump wasn't focused enough.

Press Secretary Sanders can't really think that it is off limits to question a four-star general's statements, can she? Doyou have a sense that she's willingly playing a role, or has she really drunk the Kool-Aid?

Best guess here, based largely off reading reporting from our fantastic White House team: She's willingly playing a role. Those who have stayed close to Trump often are forced to do or say embarrassing things to defend their boss. (See: Sean Spicer defending Trump's inauguration crowd size on Day One.) I think Kelly did the same when he went out there and made factually incorrect statements about Wilson. Perhaps -- and this is pure speculation on my part -- they've rationalized playing the game as a necessary evil to be able to serve their country. 

As a fellow nerd (life sciences) I find the EPA preventing its scientists from presenting at a meeting VERY alarming. Thanks to the WaPo for the publicity.

Thanks for reading and sharing your perspective. The reporters who covered that story, Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin, are some of the best when it comes to environmental issues. 

With the deserved attention sexual harassment in the movie industry is getting, I wonder: how does the news industry compare? Thank you.

This is just one person speaking of her own experience. I haven't had a problem in my decade of reporting across the world and in local and national newsrooms and in Congress. Walking down the street, riding a metro train, going to a bar are all much more likely places for this to happen, in my experience. (And I saw your follow up question -- i don't know how different news orgs compare to each other.)

If Menendez is convicted, could McConnell find a way to have a vote to expel him ASAP so Christie could appoint a Rep. to replace him?

He'd need Democrats to help expel Menendez, which is the big unanswered question. (Menendez trial update here.)

This is, to me, the root of it all - Trump is just not very bright or attentive to (it seems) anything. Kelly did try to help him along, coach or coax or whatever so Trump would not Foul Up (clean verbiage) the call. And AFTER ALL THAT, 45 still Fouled it up. So, how does one invoke 25 section 4 on 45?

Repeat after me: Impeachment by the 25th Amendment is the LEAST likely way to get Trump out of office. It would require not just members of Congress to decide he's committed an impeachable offense/isn't fit to serve, it'd require members of his Cabinet to agree as well. 

What race do you think will be closest? What's your line? I have Northam by 8 points, and Moore by 2.

Hi fellow campaign nerd! (I mean that in the most endearing way.)

That's a really good question. Conventional wisdom in a non-topsy turvy political environment says Virginia's governor race would be closer than Alabama Senate. Virginia's a purple-ish state that historically has voted against the party in the White House. Alabama is deep red that hasn't sent a Democrat to statewide office in decades.  Polling averages show Northam and Moore up by a similar margin -- 5-6 points. I say Moore wins by a touch more than Northam, just because, it's 'bama!

Mika Brzezinski has said that she's experienced sexual harassment at more than one media company so maybe more facts to come.

Yeah, that's horrible to hear. 

When you look at the President's attacks on an African American Gold Star Widow, a U.S. Representative, the NFL, the NBA, journalists like Jemille Hill, along with years of attacking the first African American President, why doesn't Trump have this same level of disgust for the Klu Klux Klan, Fascist Nazis and White Supremecists?

My Fix colleague Eugene Scott took a crack at this yesterday. His take: "many black women feel like the attacks from Trump reek of sexism and racism in ways that Trump's other attacks do not.." More aggressive, more racial overtones.

And my take: For Trump, when he has an opportunity to inject gender into an attack, he most certainly will. (See: Mika tweets.) 

I think he hits where he can, when he can. And his frequent feuds with black women are definitely not winning over a group of voters that were already extremely skeptical -- even "fearful"-- of him as president. 

I laugh when people write in and beg you to stop covering Trump's tweets as if that would make them go away. What people need to understand is what a tremendous weapon Twitter has been for Trump, both as a candidate and then as president. Scott Adams of Dilbert fame understands what's going on. If I could link to a rival newspaper, he wrote an excellent column about just that: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-power-of-the-presidential-tweet-1508702456

And he's really good at it! (I analyzed hundreds of tweets during the campaign and came to basically that conclusion.) 

In poll after poll, we hear how his supporters love that Trump goes around the media by using Twitter. Anecdotally, I have yet to meet a Trump  supporter who signed up for Twitter to hear what the president says. I'm sure they are out there, but the ones I've talked to say "oh we just read about it when you write about it."

I'm not usually the type to go in for them, but I can't help thinking that La David Johnson's casket is empty, and I see that his widow is worried that could be the case.

I can't imagine what pain she's going through right now, not fully understanding how her husband died or why she can't see his body. ON that question, Gen Dunford said yesterday (paraphrasing our reporters here): "that U.S. military policy calls for a casualty assistance officer to recommend at times for remains not to be viewed, but it also says that it is ultimately the family’s decision."

So, yes, there is still a question as to who made the decision she can't see her husband's body. 

So, what's up with Lindsey Graham? Trump's treated him like dirt since the primaries, now he's tagging along the golf course like a pathetic wannabe friend. Does he really think he can bargain with Trump?

Flattery apparently goes far with this president. My wonderful colleagues Philip Rucker, Sean Sullivan and Paul Kane touched on Graham's flattery of Trump's golf game yesterday this way:  “Trump is motivated by the same concern in all situations, which is to dominate and to be perceived as having won. That supersedes everything, including ideology.”

I don't know if purge is the proper word for the situation but the establishment of the Democratic party seems to be staking out some territory against the Bernie wing. Oh that's right. Bernie isn't really a Democrat. Two questions-are they that frightened about losing power to the FDR wing and do they think voters care if Bernie is or is not a member of the Democratic party?

As my colleagues David Weigel and Ed O'Keefe reported, it's not clear if some staff changes could actually be characterized as  a purge: "Nonetheless, a meeting that Democrats hoped would close the door on the bitter 2016 primary produced yet another activists-vs.-establishment fight. What was reported as a “shake-up” by NBC News became, in Vanity Fair, “DNC chair purges dissenters.” At Splinter, it became “The DNC Cuts High-Profile Trans, POC Members From Party’s Left Wing in the Name of ‘Diversity.’”

But, to your question, yes, absolutely Democrats are trying to fold in the Bernie wing of the party with their more traditional supporters. And they clearly haven't figured out a way to do it. 

So... g2g. Thanks for all your fabulous questions, as always. I'm smarter after having spent an hour talking to y'all. See ya next Tuesday, and please do send any burning unanswered questions over to Mr. Aaron Blake, who hosts a Fix chat noon ET on Fridays. Thanks!

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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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