Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Maybe I used the wrong metaphor from vaudeville to describe the Presidency of Donald Trump. In a recent post I compared him to a sleight-of-hand stage magician, using cunning techniques to misdirect his audience so they see only what he wants them to see and not what he’s really doing. In the last week of July, though, he’s seemed more like a juggler, keeping multiple balls in the air until his audience grows dizzy trying to tell them apart. The week began with the impending Republican vote on repealing and maybe replacing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), colloquially and derisively known as “Obamacare.”
It also began with the Trump administration continuing to deal with controversies over its relations with Russia, particularly over a meeting held June 9, 2016 in Trump Tower between Donald Trump, Jr.; Trump Sr.’s son-in-law (and, I suspect, desired successor) Jared Kushner; Trump’s then-campaign manager Paul Manafort; a Russian woman attorney named Natalia Veselnitskaya, whom I instantly nicknamed “Miss V from Moscow” after a deservedly obscure 1942 “B” movie with that title; and a whole lot of other Russians, including one who’s a former Russian intelligence officer and another who used to run a money-laundering scam and whom the pre-Trump Justice Department was trying to put on trial.
Since then, the U.S. Senate has voted down three, count ’em, three attempts to repeal all or part of the ACA — a “repeal and replace” plan that would have thrown 22 million Americans off of health insurance; a repeal-only bill that would have thrown off 32 million; and a so-called “skinny” repeal that would only have thrown off 16 million — and Trump has sent out tweet after tweet reflecting his own indecision whether to “let Obamacare fail” or demand that the Senate Republicans try again. But there aren’t that many people talking anymore about either the Senate’s failure to repeal the ACA or the June 9, 2016 meeting between Trump’s family and Miss V from Moscow.
That’s because Trump has thrown so many other balls into his juggling act. He’s brought in Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci, a fellow New York financier whose name and personal style both seem to have come from The Sopranos, who unleashed an expletive-filled tirade against just about everyone else on Trump’s staff, including chief of staff (and former Republican National Committee chair) Reince Priebus, whom The Mooch called “a fucking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac,” and chief strategist Steve Bannon, of whom The Mooch said, “I’m not trying to suck my own cock. I’m not trying to build my own brand off the fucking strength of the President. I’m here to serve the country.” When he wasn’t talking like that about Trump’s other staff people, The Mooch was alternately threatening to fire and to “kill” (his word, not mine!) anyone on the staff caught leaking information to reporters.
The Mooch has already nailed Reince Priebus’s scalp to his wall, leaving Trump a Cabinet vacancy because he tabbed Homeland Security Secretary (and former Marine general) John Kelly as Priebus’ replacement. Trump may have another empty spot in his Cabinet soon because he’s continuing his jihad against Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The Attorney General has been a perfect servant of Trump’s agenda of immigrant bashing, 1980’s-style “tough on crime” zaniness and voter suppression, but Sessions ran afoul of the Donald for the one thing he did right. He “recused” — that is, stepped down — from overseeing any investigation of possible Russian influence on the 2016 U.S. Presidential election because, as the first elected official to endorse Trump and a frequent surrogate for him on the campaign trail, he’d been an intimate and high-echelon part of Trump’s campaign.
Trump’s mad at him for that because that means Sessions isn’t available to protect Trump from being investigated at all. Instead Sessions’ deputy, Rod Rosenstein (whom Trump has denounced as a Democrat from Baltimore even though Rosenstein is a Republican from Bethesda) appointed a special counsel, Robert Mueller, of whom Trump seems to be saying, to paraphrase what English King Henry II said of his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket, before someone in his entourage got the message and knocked Becket off, “Will no one rid me of this dastardly prosecutor?”
But those weren’t enough balls for Trump. He also issued a provocative and quite out-of-the-blue set of three Twitter messages announcing that he was going to ban Transgender people from serving in the U.S. military because “our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that Transgender [people] in the military would entail.” He didn’t bother actually issuing an executive order, a command directive or any of the other documents Presidents usually put out when they’re telling the military to do (or not do) something. He just tweeted and left the people he called “my Generals” (the capitalization is his, not mine) to figure out what he meant, including whether they could let Transgender people already serving stay in and just not admit new ones, or they were supposed to purge them all.
And as if that weren’t enough, Trump also made two all-out speeches that showed his skill at using other people’s crowds as his props. On July 24 he addressed the Boy Scouts of America’s Jamboree in West Virginia, an occasion other Presidents have deliberately kept nonpolitical. Not Trump: his speech was essentially a Trump’s Greatest Hits set, laced with criticisms of Hillary Clinton, Democrats, Republicans, Washington, D.C. (Trump said he’s thinking of changing his nickname for it from “swamp” to “cesspool” or “sewer”), the media and his other favorite targets. What’s more, the crowd of 45,000 Boy Scouts and his families basically turned into Trump’s call-and-response congregation, shouting approval and repeating his catch-phrases back to him. The clips I saw on TV reminded me of a Hitler Youth rally: the only element missing was Leni Riefenstahl to give the clips some visual distinction.
Trump went even further to an audience he thought would be at least as appreciative of him as the Boy Scouts: a group of uniformed law enforcement officers at Suffolk County, New York. “When you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over?” Trump said, making fun of the way police officers put their hands on top of the heads of people they’re arresting so they don’t hit the tops of their heads against the car. “Like, don’t hit their head, and they just killed somebody — don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, okay?”
The Suffolk County police quickly issued a statement to the effect that they were horrified by Trump’s suggestion and they were not about to do anything to give their officers the idea that they could go out of their way to hurt suspects just because the President of the United States seemed to have given them the green light to do so. “The Suffolk County Police Department has strict rules and procedures relating to the handling of prisoners, and violations of those rules and procedures are treated extremely seriously,” the department e-mailed to its officers and the media. “As a department, we do not and will not tolerate ‘rough[ing]’ up prisoners.”
Other police departments, including Los Angeles and New York — both of which have long reputations for abusive and arbitrary treatment of citizens, especially people of color — quickly followed suit. The people running these departments said they’d carefully worked out policies to minimize the injuries to suspects, and they expected their officers to follow them no matter what the President said. But the militaristic images of these speeches, as well as their violent, thug-like content, reinforced as much as anything else has how much Trump hates democracy and would much rather be a Führer or a Soviet Premier or a North Korean “Dear Leader” than a powerful but still constitutionally limited president of a democratic republic.
Health Care Lives — More or Less
The biggest surprise of the week — at least for me — was that the Affordable Care Act survived the onslaught of the U.S. Senate Republican majority, albeit by the skin of its dentures. For seven years the Republican Party has been promising to get rid of what Trump and other Republicans have variously called the “disaster,” “train wreck” and “abomination” of “Obamacare.” They rode public opposition to the law — especially the so-called “individual mandate” that forces people to buy health insurance or pay a tax penalty — to sweeping election victories in 2010 (when they took the House of Representatives away from the Democrats), 2014 (when they took the Senate) and 2016 (when they took the Presidency).
During the 2016 campaign Trump promised to “repeal and replace Obamacare” on “day one of his Presidency.” It didn’t happen, mainly because the Affordable Care Act is an actual law passed by Congress and therefore he couldn’t get rid of it merely by signing an executive order, the way he could get rid of the civil rights of immigrants and Muslims. In May the House of Representatives, after a false start two months earlier, passed the so-called “American Health Care Act,” or AHCA (which I thought should have had a verb on the front of its name to describe what it would really do, like “Destroy American Health Care Act” or “Eviscerate American Health Care Act”), which the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated would take health coverage away from 23 million people.
The AHCA not only attacked the Affordable Care Act, it also drove a stake through the heart of Medicaid, which began in 1965 as a government program to help poor Americans have access to health care. It’s since ballooned to cover one out of every six Americans — in certain far-flung states like Alaska, it’s one out of four. Forty-nine percent of all U.S. mothers who give birth today have their health care provided by Medicaid. Most residents of nursing home have their costs paid, all or in part, by Medicaid so their families don’t have to worry about grandma and grandpa impoverishing them. Medicaid is a joint federal-state program, in which the states decide who should be allowed in and what benefits they’ll receive, and the feds pay a share of the states’ cost for whatever they decide to cover.
The AHCA would have changed all that. Instead, the federal contribution to each state would have been capped at what it is now, and allowed to grow only by the overall rate of inflation — not the rate of increase of health-care costs, which is several times larger. This would have forced state governments either to kick scads of people off Medicaid, drastically reduce the services the program offers, or both. A lot of state governors — Republicans as well as Democrats — blanched at something so gratuitously cruel. So did a handful of Republican Senators, notably Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) — remember I just said one out of every four Alaskans receives Medicaid benefits?
The wild card in all of this turned out to be former Republican Presidential nominee Senator John McCain (R-Arizona). McCain’s saga began when he went back home for what was supposed to be a routine operation to remove a blood clot from behind his left eye. Before he left Washington he put out a statement denouncing the closed-door process Senate leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) had ordered in which a gang of 13 Republican Senators, all male and all white except Ted Cruz (R-Texas), wrote the Senate’s version of the bill, the “Better Care Reconciliation Act” (BCRA), in secret.
“The Congress must now return to regular order, hold hearings, receive input from members of both parties, and heed the recommendations of our nation’s governors so that we can produce a bill that finally provides Americans with access to quality and affordable health care,” McCain wrote before he left for his date with an Arizona surgeon under the Congressional health care plan, which covers virtually everything. Then he got the terrible news that that little blood clot was actually a sign of a particularly aggressive sort of brain cancer called glioblastoma.
McCain’s public career has been a Jekyll-and-Hyde alternation between hero and hypocrite: between his courageous 5 ½ years of resistance to North Viet Namese oppression and torture as a prisoner of war and his craven belief that his way to the White House in 2008 led to throwing the crazy base of his party some red meat by appointing Sarah Palin (then-Governor of Alaska and sworn political enemy of Lisa Murkowski and her father) as his running mate. He got out of his hospital bed, went to D.C., got a hero’s welcome in the Senate — and then provided the deciding vote to pass the Motion to Proceed on the BCRA, thereby ratifying Mitch McConnell’s secret process he had earlier denounced. Then McCain the hero made a speech on the Senate floor saying basically the same things he’d said in his written statement before he left — and McCain the hypocrite voted for the BCRA itself even though he’d previously denounced it as “a shell of a bill.”
But the saga of the two McCains wasn’t over yet. After President Trump — who during the campaign had said McCain wasn’t really a Viet Nam War hero because he’d been captured and “I like people who weren’t captured” — saluted McCain as “a brave man” for having voted for the Motion to Proceed and the BCRA (which lost because there were a few other Republican defectors), McCain switched sides again and voted against an outright repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Mitch McConnell and his crew, scrambling for alternatives, then came up with something bizarre and outrageous called the “skinny” repeal, which would have got rid of only three parts of the ACA: the individual mandate that everyone has to have health insurance, the employer mandate that every company above a certain size has to provide it, and the tax on medical devices that provides a small part of its funding.
An indication of how absurd this process got was exemplified when a number of Republican Senators, including Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), gave a press conference on the eve of the vote on the “skinny” bill and said they were voting for it even though they didn’t like it and didn’t want to see it become law. They called it “bad public policy” and a “fraud.” Why would they vote for it if they thought it was bad public policy and a fraud, and didn’t want to see it become law? Because the House had already passed their version of a bill to repeal and replace the ACA, and the Senate therefore had to pass something to get the issue before a joint House-Senate conference committee.
That’s how differences between House and Senate versions of a bill usually get resolved. Both houses appoint members to a conference committee, and that group meets behind closed doors to work out a compromise between the two versions. Then the conference compromise gets referred back to each house, and if it passes the House and Senate, it goes to the President either to be signed into law or to be vetoed. Only House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) wouldn’t guarantee that he’d actually call a conference. He refused to rule out his other option: to ask the House to vote on the Senate bill as is, thereby sending the Senate’s fraudulent, bad public policy to President Trump, who’d said he was waiting in the Oval Office with his pen to sign whatever Congress gave him.
It all ended on July 27, when McCain the hypocrite once again yielded his place on the U.S. Senate floor to McCain the hero. Having already joined six other Republican Senators — Collins, Murkowski, Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia), Dean Heller (R-Nevada), and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) — in voting against the repeal-don’t-replace bill the day before, McCain kept his vote open on the “skinny repeal” until nearly the last minute, gave Vice-President Mike Pence (who was there in case his vote was needed to break a tie) a thumbs-up signal, and then spoke an almost inaudible “no.”
There was another hero on the Senate floor that night, who’s been much less discussed than McCain: Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawai’i). Like McCain, she’s suffering from an incredibly invasive and aggressive cancer, though in her kidneys instead of her brain. She was actually recovering from surgery on her kidneys to stop the cancer when the vote on the health-care bill came up. Unlike McCain, her vote wasn’t going to affect the outcome one way or the other — all 46 Senate Democrats, plus the two independents (Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont) who caucus with them, had already formed a solid phalanx of opposition against any Republican attempt to repeal the ACA, and without her the final vote against the “skinny repeal” would have been 51 to 48 instead of 51 to 49.
But that didn’t stop Senator Hirono from getting out of her hospital bed, heading to Washington and bearing personal witness against the evil the Republicans, in their Libertarian fervor to destroy not only the ACA and Medicaid but all social insurance programs, were trying to wreak on the American health-care system. On July 25, after the Senate passed the Motion to Proceed, Hirono said, “Any proposal Senate Republicans come up with will kick millions off of their health care and hurt the sickest, oldest, and poorest in our communities. If this is what the Republican Party wants to stand for, the American people will hold them accountable.”
The real heroes in the health-care debate are the tens of thousands of Americans, many of them with disabilities, who went to town-hall meetings held by Republican Senators and Congressmembers who dared to have them and crashed the offices of those who didn’t to tell them they literally might die if the ACA were repealed and the Medicaid funding cap enacted. They are people like Mazie Hirono, who told the Senate flat-out she didn’t see why anyone else with cancer shouldn’t have the same excellent access to treatment she has from being a member of Congress; and Jimmy Fallon, who said on his TV show he didn’t see why anyone with a son born with a horrendous birth defect should have to watch their baby suffer, and maybe die, for lack of access to medical care he can finance for his son because he’s a well-paid TV star.
And they are Republicans like Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, John McCain and governors like John Kasich (R-Ohio) and Brian Sandoval (R-Nevada). I may disagree with them on plenty of issues, but at least I can acknowledge that there are some Republicans out there who haven’t totally drunk Ayn Rand’s Kool-Aid and abandoned the whole notion that one of government’s functions is to help those who can’t take care of themselves. Indeed, I said during the last Presidential campaign that the country would have been far better served if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic nominee and John Kasich the Republican. Instead of Wall Street whore Hillary Clinton and lying egomaniac Donald Trump, we would have had a choice between two dedicated public servants who agree on what the problems facing America are, even though they disagree profoundly on how we should go about solving them.