Q&A: Ask Amber from The Fix

Mar 13, 2018

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

Holy guacamole is there a lot of news from Washington today: House Republicans say there was no collusion. Trump abruptly fires his secretary of state. The White House abruptly fires Trump's personal assistant. A Democrat could win an election tonight deep in Trump country. Thanks for joining me for the next hour. What are you curious about?

I bet you thought you'd be talking about Conor Lamb exclusively, huh? So let me ask whether Rexit helps or hurts Saccone? I figure it probably doesn't matter much, but if it does, it hurts.

"Who's Conor Lamb?" asks area politics reporter whose head is spinning from all this news.

No, but seriously, you're right that the Pennsylvania special congressional election tonight, deep in Trump country, is worth watching, because a Democrat (Lamb) might win, which would say a lot about Democrats' chances to take back the House in November.

I'm not sure the firing of Rex Tillerson crosses over into this race too much. It's a safe bet that if you support Trump, you'll trust his decision making -- even if people may be turned off by the way Trump fired Tillerson. 

Are the latest staffing/personnel changes to Trump's administration and 2020 campaign just the latest round of musical-deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic or evidence of Trump playing 20-demeninsional chess while everyone else is playing checkers?

That was a surprising amount of "20s" in your question. 

It depends on how you look at this. Trump's critics, including some Republicans, see unfiltered chaos, driven by a president who openly admits he likes fighting among his aides. 

Trump's supporters, like most Republicans in Congress, are dodging the question of what Tillerson's firing means, choosing instead to focus on what they liked about Tillerson and what they like about Trump's choice for a replacement, CIA Director Mike Pompeo. But they're not defending Tillerson's firing. That suggests to me that even his supporters don't appreciate all the staff drama. 

I think the one thing that's fair to say is this amount of turnover isn't normal. The Post's Danielle Paquette reported that after top economic adviser Gary Cohn announced his resignation last week, turnover among Trump's staff reached 43 percent -- almost triple Barack Obama's at around the same time. 

So the House GOP submitted its report and the next day its reported that Roger Stone had contacts with WikiLeaks...maybe they should have interviewed Stone a little more.

And that's the risk House Republicans take in being the first of the 3 major congressional committees investigating Russia to wrap up. It's fair to ask (and I do here) if the ended their investigation prematurely, especially since it comes well before Robert Mueller's independent investigation is done. 

So Tillerson says Russia was responsible for the poisoning of an ex spy and Trump cans him???

That's the talking point on the left today. Congressional Democrats are openly wondering if there's a correlation between Tillerson's tough talk on Russia yesterday and his firing today. 


I think what was going on in Trump's head when he fired Tillerson is hard to suss out. Certainly Tillerson was a rare voice of criticism toward Russia in the Trump administration, but that's not necessarily new.

Trump didn't address this directly when briefly talking with reporters Tuesday morning, but he did say that his firing had to do with the fact he and Tillerson don't agree on significant foreign policy issues. White House aides have also told my colleagues Ashley Parker and Philip Ruckerthat Trump wants to get someone he likes and agrees with in place before potential May meetings with North Korea. 

...it would've been totally obsolete by now. Heck, that'd be true even if I'd posted before 5 AM today.


It seems like things that would have held a news cycle for a week or more in past administrations can't even get above the fold nowadays. It's been over a year and I still can't handle/process the constant rate of news. How do we sort it all and keep track?

I swear I didn't plant this question. But I do have a great answer: Sign up for my newsletter, The 5-Minute Fix. It's, as advertised, a five-minute afternoon newsletter that comes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons, and it's designed to be your cheat sheet of the day's biggest political news. 

Everyone seems to like him, but has there been any controversy in his past?

So, Republicans in Congress (and the president) seem to like him. Speaker Paul Ryan called Pompeo, the current director of the CIA, "razor sharp" and "a dedicated patriot." 

But Democrats don't. And here's why: Pompeo doesn't support the Iran nuclear agreement, and they do. They don't feel like Pompeo has addressed Russia meddling forcefully enough, and he was a big player in Congress's election-year investigation into the Benghazi terrorist attacks. 

So the GOP has come out and said the CIA was wrong? Am I reading that correctly?

Are you talking about the House Intelligence Committee's decision to end its investigation in Russia meddling? (Well, Republicans' decision.) Yes, they did directly contradict the CIA. Here's how: 

Republicans said there's no evidence that Russia meddled to help Trump. The entire U.S. intelligence community -- based on human and electronic evidence they collected, explains former FBI agent Asha Rangappa  -- says Russia meddled in U.S. elections specifically to help Trump.


I'd propose that Anthony Scaramucci was the fast-forward prototype of Trump's view of firing underlings: Bring in someone to get rid of others (in Scaramucci's case, Spicer and Priebus left), then dismiss the firer. In Tillerson's case, Trump wanted the State Department severely gutted of career personnel, then when Tillerson had done enough of the job to satisfy Trump, he got fired too.

Points for finding a coherent way to fold in one of the most infamous firings of this young White House so far, Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted a whole 10 days as the White House's communications director.

But, I'm not sure your theory's correct that Trump used Tillerson to gut out the State Department, then fired Tillerson. My colleagues Anne Gearan and Carol Morello report that Trump was actually annoyed at the slow pace in Tillerson's revamping of the State Department. In other words, Tillerson didn't fire enough people quickly enough. 

Tillerson's undersecretary has just been fired too. Any idea what's going on today?

Two things:
1. Early reports on that firing is the aide contradicted the White House's account of how Tillerson got fired. (Tillerson's side is claiming he didn't know until he saw Trump's tweet.)

2. The New York Times' Maggie Haberman, one of the most reliable reporters on the Trump administration, reports that more firings across the board could be coming, as the White House tries to rip off the band-aid of cleaning house. 

Didn't she get in trouble for torturing prisoners in Thailand? And Trump naminates her for CIA Chief? WTF?

The potential new head of the CIA is definitely controversial. She did indeed run one of the CIA's "black sites," which used waterboarding and other interrogation techniques Congress has now banned as torture, in Thailand. And my colleagues Greg Miller and Shane Harris report that she was involved "in the decision to destroy videotapes of interrogation sessions that left some detainees on the brink of physical collapse." 

But but but, worth pointing out that Trump has said "torture works" and suggested bringing back waterboarding -- so to Trump, her history may not be that controversial. (Not that he'll be able to; he'd need Congress's approval.)

Are the confirmation hearings for Pompeo State Dept. and his successor at the CIA going to be easy or difficult?

Good question. The Senate handles confirmations, and what until recently took 60 votes now only takes a simple majority of votes (usually, 51). Republicans have 51 Senate members, which means all Democrats can defect and Trump will still get his nominees through the Senate. Republicans can even afford one defection and have Vice President Mike Pence come down to break the tie, like he did for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos's confirmation. 

Two GOP defections and all Democratic opposition would put Pompeo and Gina Haspel in trouble. But I see no early signs of opposition from Republicans. 

Do you have any idea why Scaramucci continues to get so much attention and air-time? He only worked at the WH 10 days. Or is that a tenured position by WH standards?

When Scaramucci threatened to sue a college newspaper last fall, my Fix colleague Callum Borchers theorized it was because he missed sparring with the media. I think the same could be said for why he's willing to go on air so much. As for why he's allowed on air, former White House officials, even if they were only part of the White House for 10 short days, are a valued commodity on TV because they can try to shed insight on this very opaque president. 

Seems as though she broke TWO major Trump rules with her "60 Minutes" appearance on Sunday: Raising her own public profile, and making herself look bad. Will this put her on Trump's chopping block?

I'd add a third: Making the Trump White House look bad. And, yes, I think her job is in more jeopardy than it was before that interview, though I have no idea to what degree. 

Do you anticipate any Congressional response to Trump's proposed tariffs?

Good question. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is drafting a bill. But I have a hard time seeing Congress voting on it, let alone it passing. As much as Republicans in Congress absolutely loathe Trump's tariff policy, they are more afraid of upsetting Trump's base in their own voter districts. See Flake as an example. He was a vocal Trump critic during the campaign, wrote a book that published shortly after the election being critical of Trump, and then realized he had lost his base to run for reelection, even in Arizona, which only voted for Trump by 3 points over Clinton. 

Elizabeth Warren appeared on the Fox Sunday morning program. Do you think that's an indication of her plans to run for president?

I think the fact she wouldn't commit to finishing her six-year term in the Senate if she wins reelection in November speaks more to Warren's presidential ambitions. 

Does she not know or understand the concept of losing? She lost to Barack Obama..what were her excuses then? And she does not do the Dems any favors dissing voters. I don't care if she is correct or not...don't bad mouth voters. Politics 101

You're talking about her recent comments where she said this of Trump voters: "is whole campaign — 'Make America Great Again' — was looking backward. You know, you didn't like black people getting rights; you don't like women, you know, getting jobs; you don't want to, you know, see that Indian American succeeding more than you are — you know, whatever your problem is, I'm gonna solve it.”


Yeah, I think that is the opposite of helpful, from Democrats perspective, if they want to try to win over Trump voters. I'm not sure how much weight Clinton's words will carry in a presidential election years from now, but I am sure that Democrats who do have to run in a couple months are cringing. 

How is it looking? Any report from people on the ground?

No, no numbers yet we can report. I think you're smart to focus on turnout numbers: Even if Democrats lose this election, they can "win" the mental game by pointing to how many Democrats and independents they got to turn out for this election, just like they did in Texas's primaries last week. 

Do you see any indications that the timing of Trump's Tillerson firing (and possibly more coming) is an effort to distract from the Stormy Daniels affair and possible upcoming bombshells?

No, I don't see any evidence of that, though you're right that The Trump White House has a tendency to try to bury news it doesn't want out there by making more newsy-news. If Trump had abruptly fired Tillerson on the Sunday "60 Minutes" was set to air its Daniels interview, well, that'd be a more direct correlation. 

Excellent article by your colleague Eugene Scott. I thought it was proven when teenage pregnancies decreased during the Obama Administration that abstinence-only doesn't work as well as other strategies, but I guess this keeps the evangelicals in Trump's corner. In other news, what's new in the Stormy Daniels Scandal?

Eugene's been doing great work on this. 

With Daniels, we're all waiting to see if "60 Minutes" will air its interview with her soon, and what she'll say. 


Given the partisan nature of this committee under its current leadership, how much lasting damage has been done to the committee?

This is a good question, and I don't immediately know the answer. It is fair to say that until this Russia investigation, the committee was usually the one where Republicans and Democrats could work together -- and even (gasp) agree on stuff. That's certainly changed for now, but maybe these lawmakers will find a way to find bipartisanship again. Sooner rather than later would be ideal for the committee's integrity. 

Greetings from suburban Pittsburgh. The weather today here is colder than normal, with a few intermittent snow flurries but at the same time some patches of blue in the sky. Don't know if that'll depress PA-18 voter turnout much, however, since we're a pretty hardy bunch.

Thanks for the update! 

DACA? Border wall? Immigration fixes? Assault weapons ban? Raise the age for buying rifles to match the age for hand guns? School security fixes?

Probably none of that. I get the sense that Republicans in Congress just want to fund the government without too much political drama, and Democrats aren't willing to shut down the government to get any of those things.

Hi Amber -- thanks for taking questions today on another slow news day (not). What's your sense of the special election race in PA? I'm seeing Republicans already trying to lower expectations. Either they know they're going to lose, or it's an effort to tamp down turnout among those likely to vote for Lamb (as in but it looks like he's going to win anyway so no need for me to go vote). That's my take, anyway. And if he does win, how much can we read into that for the midterms as a whole?


Thanks for asking a question. I talk about how much we can read into Pennsylvania's results here. Basically: If Lamb wins or comes within a few points of winning, he'll have done it by converting Trump voters in a mostly white, blue-collar Pennsylvania community. That's significant, and it suggests that, unless the national mood changes drastically between now and November, Democrats have a shot at taking back the House of Representatives, since they don't need to win in places like this district to unseat Republicans.

I'm in PA-18 and I was number 42 at 8 am. That seems high to me and I'm hoping it means good things.

That does seem high for a special election

Often it seems like reporters are willing to go further on Twitter - saying someone/agency lied for example - than they are in their stories. Do you agree with that and do you think reporters should be consistent across all forms of media?


This is a good question. I think different mediums allow reporters to use them differently. Twitter and TV lend themselves to more analysis. That being said, consistency of facts does matter. If you're not willing to say someone "lied" in your story, I wouldn't do it on social media.

I won't hold to to any answer because I don't have one myself but where does the Trump presidency end? Impeachment but no conviction? This constant turmoil for 3 more years? I just cannot see how this mess plays out. What if the Dems go nuts and nominate somebody from CA that can't get to 270? What is the end here?


Amber, Thanks for chatting with us today. Always appreciate you insight on politics and current events.

Thanks for joining me! See ya'll next Tuesday. And apologies if I didn't get to your question -- I got a lot today. Fix's Aaron Blake is chatting Friday at noon if you want to ask it to him. 

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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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