High Hopes
March 6, 2020

The federal deficit has shot up under President Trump, due largely to a $1.5 trillion tax cut and bipartisan spending increases — Trump has insisted on hiking military spending, Democrats pushed to raise domestic programs. And so at a Fox News town hall in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Thursday, Martha McCallum argued that "if you don't cut something in entitlements, you'll never really deal with the debt." "Oh, we'll be cutting," Trump said, but he also promised that, presumably in a second term, the U.S. will see "growth like you never had before."

Entitlements refer to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, and Trump has sent mixed signals on whether he wants to cut them. The Trump administration is also asking the Supreme Court to strike down the Affordable Care Act, and one of the town hall participants asked what Trump envisions as a replacement to ObamaCare. Trump wasn't real specific.

'What we'd like to do is totally kill [ObamaCare] but come up, before we do that, with something that's great," Trump said. He claimed that after failing to replace the Affordable Care Act in 2017, he made the choice to manage "the carcass of ObamaCare" rather than sabotage the law, and "we're managing it fantastically." Peter Weber

February 25, 2020

There are now more than 80,000 known cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus worldwide, including at least 35 cases in the U.S., with outbreaks unexpectedly mushrooming in Iran, Italy, and South Korea. President Trump continues to downplay concerns about "the still-mysterious coronavirus — which is hard to detect, poses high risk to the elderly, and may in some cases be transmitted by people who show no symptoms," The Washington Post reports, concerned that fears about the virus could further spook the stock market, which had its worst day in two years on Monday, and harm his re-election prospects.

"The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA," Trump tweeted from India on Monday evening. "We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!" On Tuesday, Trump told reporters in New Delhi that the coronavirus "is very well under control" in the U.S., said researchers are "close" to a developing a vaccine (which won't be available until 2021, at least), and said he believes the the coronavirus is "a problem that's going to go away."

Trump's advisers are aware of the political and economic risks the coronavirus poses, but they are also downplaying them in public. "It looks like the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump," Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show Monday. "The coronavirus is the common cold, folks." (It isn't.) Informal Trump economic adviser Stephen Moore told Politico that "the view in the White House is that this is one of those classic black swan events." That drew an exasperated response from Week contributor James Pethokoukis.

Trump has "hollowed out the senior leadership of so many departments of the government — especially in the scientific community," University of Virginia presidential historian Russell Riley tells the Post, "If the markets continue to drop and the medical news gets very bad, then this president is singularly ill-prepared to deal with it in a rational manner." Peter Weber

February 5, 2020

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) just articulated one of the main rationales certain Republican senators are giving for not voting to impeach President Trump for what they agree are his misdeeds regarding Ukraine and Joe Biden. "I believe that the president has learned from this case," Collins told CBS News anchor Norah O'Donnell on Tuesday. "The president has been impeached. That's a pretty big lesson. ... I believe that he will be much more cautious in the future."

"The president's call was wrong," Collins added. "The president of the United States should not be asking a foreign country to investigate a political rival. That is just improper. It was far from a perfect call."

Trump, it appears, disagrees with Collins. "It was a perfect call," Trump told O'Donnell and other TV news anchors during a two-hour lunch ahead of his State of the Union address, according to The Washington Post. He again insisted he did nothing wrong. The lunch was off-the-record for journalists who attended — nobody from the Post was there, and CNN was pointedly not invited — but Trump's lack of contrition over impeachment matches other reporting and Trump's frequent public statements.

Trump also mocked his former national security adviser John Bolton during the lunch, saying he wants the White House to block publication of Bolton's forthcoming book and jabbing Bolton for always insisting on being referred to as "ambassador," despite earning the title during a brief, non-Senate-confirmed tenure as United Nations ambassador under President George W. Bush, the Post and CNN report. Trump discussed his potential Democratic rivals, reportedly calling Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) "nasty" and fixating on former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter, and Ukrainian gas company Burisma.

The White House declined invitations to respond to the reports. "I'm not going to comment on an off-the-record lunch because I actually have ethics," said White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham. Peter Weber

January 28, 2020

President Trump is scheduled to unveil his administration's long-awaited Middle East peace plan at noon Tuesday at the White House, accompanied by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There is widespread skepticism about the viability of the secret plan, three years in the making, because it is expected to be very favorable to Israel and Palestinians have rejected it out of hand. "It's been worked on by everybody, and we'll see whether or not it catches hold," Trump said Monday, alongside Netanyahu. "If it does, that would be great, and if it doesn't, we can live with it, too. But I think it might have a chance."

The Israeli news media have speculated that Trump's plan will endorse Israel's annexation of large portions of occupied territory that Palestinians would expect for an independent state, all but ending the broad international consensus that a two-state solution is the only workable end goal of Israeli-Palestinian talks. But "Trump has spent three years accruing political capital" with Netanyahu, Jonathan Swan speculates at Axios, and "if he offers the Palestinians their own state," it's "hard to imagine Netanyahu defying him even if he faces internal pressure" from his conservative nationalist base.

Whatever the details, the rollout of the plan will be a welcome distraction for Trump, whose ongoing Senate impeachment trial has been upended by leaked manuscript excerpts from former National Security Adviser John Bolton's forthcoming book, and for Netanyahu. Israeli prosecutors formally indicted Netanyahu early Tuesday on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in three separate corruption cases, hours after Netanyahu withdrew a petition for immunity from prosecution to be debated in Israel's Knesset, or parliament. He was expected to lose the vote, dealing him a political blow as he faces Israel's third election in a year on March 2. Peter Weber

June 26, 2019

There has been speculation that a recent series of letters between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — Trump called Kim's "beautiful" while Kim dubbed Trump's "excellent" — might lead to a third summit between the two leaders, after the second summit ended in February with no progress on denuclearization. South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Wednesday that in fact U.S. and North Korean officials are holding "behind-the-scenes talks" to arrange a third summit, in an unspecified time and place. He didn't say if the talks were face-to-face or who participated.

"There's no reason to regard the current situation as a stalemate in the peace process on the peninsula just because the pace has remained slow," Moon wrote in response to questions from seven news organizations, including The Associated Press. "Complete denuclearization and a permanent peace regime on the peninsula are tasks that cannot be achieved overnight." Trump is traveling to Japan for a G20 summit on Friday, before heading to South Korea to meet with Moon, and "he is reportedly considering a visit to the demilitarized zone that divides the two Korea," CNN reports, citing a South Korean government official.

Earlier Wednesday, North Korea's foreign ministry slammed the U.S. for having "viciously slandered" Pyongyang by suggesting its sanctions will "bring us to our knees." The foreign ministry's statement criticized Secretary of State Mike Pompeo but not Trump, even referring to the president "as the 'supreme leader' of the United States," mirroring Kim's title in North Korea, CNN notes.

The foreign ministry is trying to distinguish the Kim-Trump "bromance from the relationship between their two countries," Duyeon Kim, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, suggested to CNN. "It sounds like they're sending a warning to Washington, almost as if to manage expectations ahead of a third summit, while making an appeal to Trump to basically put a straitjacket on his staff." Peter Weber

May 20, 2019

The Trump administration is going to start unveiling its long-promised Israeli-Palestinian peace plan at a June 25-26 economic "workshop" in Bahrain, the White House announced Sunday. The conference, involving finance ministers and business executives, is being described as Phase 1 of the peace initiative, with the second part, dealing with difficult political solutions that have thwarted earlier peace attempts, being rolled out later this year.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will lead the U.S. delegation with Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law. Kushner and Trump's Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt have worked on the plan for two years.

The goal of June's conference is to secure tens of billions of dollars from wealthy Gulf Arab states and donors in Europe and Asia. The reported target of $68 billion would go toward infrastructure, industry, and government reform in the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon. "Just as they have done in their sometimes highly leveraged real estate businesses," The New York Times says, Trump and Kushner "hope to use other people's money to achieve their goals. The vast bulk of the funds they hope to generate as part of the plan would come from other nations, not the United States."

Middle East experts cast doubt on the efficacy of putting the economic carrots in front of the political thorns. Israel, whose government has only taken a harder line against Palestinians since the last election, is expected to send its finance minister. The Palestinian Authority, which has ruled out the Trump administration acting as peace brokers due to its pro-Israel leanings and actions, is not expected to send anybody. On Sunday, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the conference "futile," since "any economic plan without political horizons will lead nowhere," and any political plan that doesn't "include a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital" is a nonstarter. Peter Weber

June 13, 2018

California's secretary of state's office said Tuesday that a ballot measure to split the Golden State into three — California, Northern California, and Southern California — had gotten more than enough valid signatures to make it onto the November ballot. The initiative was spearheaded by Silicon Valley venture capitalist and cryptocurrency enthusiast Tim Draper, whose previous efforts to split California into six states failed due to insufficient valid signatures. If successful, the plan would potentially create the first division of a state since West Virginia was hewn off of Virginia in 1863.

Northern California would stretch from just north of Monterey across to Nevada and up to Oregon, encompassing the Bay Area, Silicon Valley, and Napa Valley wine country. New California would be a coastal stretch from Monterey down through Los Angeles, while Southern California would encompass the rest of Southern California, including Death Valley, San Diego, and Orange County.

California, the most populous U.S. state, is no stranger to attempts at geopolitical reinvention — in its 168 years as a state, more than 200 attempts have been made to split it apart, change its boundaries, or withdraw it from the U.S., the Los Angeles Times reports, with the most recent three-state split shot down in the state legislature in 1993.

But even if Draper's plan passes — a poll in April pegged it at 17 percent support, 72 percent opposition — it would face legal challenges, and California's legislature would almost certainly have to approve it, as would Congress. Both approvals are seen as unlikely. The plan would create four new U.S. senators and dilute California's Electoral College power. "Initial analyses suggest that Northern California and California would remain reliably Democratic, while Southern California would be a swing state," The Mercury News reports. Peter Weber

August 12, 2016

Republican insiders are much more pessimistic about Donald Trump's chances than plugged-in Democrats, at least according to the coterie of political activists, strategists, and operatives in 11 swing states that Politico calls The Politico Caucus. Almost half — 49 percent — of GOP insiders tell Politico that Trump's path to the White House is already a dead end, a sentiment shared by only 28 percent of the Democratic insiders. Politico also asked the insiders about Trump's trying to negotiate the terms of the three presidential debates; 47 percent of GOP insiders said Trump is right to threaten a boycott, while 53 percent said he should commit without preconditions right now.

As interesting as the numbers are, the quotes from the insiders, who responded anonymously, are the highlight of Politico's writeup. "While Trump's chances are incredibly slim, it's not over yet," one Colorado Democrat said. "Hillary's negatives are still high, and we have several more WikiLeaks data dumps coming up, and the potential for turbulence around the debates. It's possible the bar for Trump is so low that he can be declared the winner in the debates by simply not saying anything batshit crazy."

An Iowa Republican said that while candidates in the past have come back from greater poll deficits, "it won't happen in 2016.... Trump is underperforming so comprehensively across states and demographics it would take video evidence of a smiling Hillary drowning a litter of puppies while terrorists surrounded her with chants of 'Death to America!' But in 2016, stranger things have happened." You can read more colorful quotes, and the roster of the Politico Caucus participants, at Politico. Peter Weber

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