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This Week In Garbageville: Tapes Or No Tapes? That Is The Question

That, and why are we just now seeing the Senate health care bill?

Another week, another deluge of terrible news and terribler policy in the Trump era. Welcome to our regular feature about which stories are actually worth paying attention to. It's Garbageville, Jake.

The incredible shrinking White House briefing

Rumors about the looming ouster of White House press secretary Sean Spicer have been stirring ever since his first bout of flop sweat. This week, the beleaguered Spicer confirmed that Trump has forced him to search for his own replacement, and that no one is interested in the job — perhaps because the job itself has become something of an afterthought. For the second week in a row, the White House has declared that the once-televised briefing will no longer be broadcast, and it veiled information about the briefing from public consumption.

Should I be paying attention to this?

No. The consternation of the press corps is bracing, sure. It's always good to hear journalists bitch about creeping authoritarianism! And a public briefing is an important symbol of accountability and transparency. But the truth is that the most important stories of the Trump era (indeed, of most White House administrations) are not broken from inside the White House. The New York Times' "Trump whisperer," Maggie Haberman, doesn't even live in D.C. Stories about Trump's obstructionism have thus far been broken primarily by national security reporters. This leaky White House will have trouble stemming negative coverage no matter how many events they take off-camera — something our reality TV president may not quite understand.

Trump asked intel chiefs to weigh in on the Russia investigation

According to a Thursday CNN report, Trump not only pressured FBI chief James Comey to end the probe into General Michael Flynn's Russia connections, but also asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Admiral Mike Rogers to publicly disavow any evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. In a closed Senate testimony, the two intelligence community chiefs "described their interactions with the president about the Russia investigation as odd and uncomfortable, but said they did not believe the president gave them orders to interfere, according to multiple sources familiar with their accounts."

Coats and Rogers gave more elusive testimony in public hearings earlier this month, reportedly because they had asked the White House for guidance as to whether the conversations were protected under executive privilege, and the White House did not supply that guidance prior to their testimony.

Should I be paying attention to this?

Take note, sure. It's part of the background music to the investigation of Trump obstructing justice — and background music is important in an obstruction investigation, as it gives context to the investigation target's motivations. So while Coats and Rogers say they did not feel pressured, Trump's behavior does show that he was exasperated by the Russia investigation and willing to take unusual and aggressive steps to move it out of the public eye.

The rich man's tax cut, in disguise

The Senate’s health care bill finally emerged from its secret drafting process and was made public on Thursday. The so-called Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 reads like a political suicide note, promising to do things that are sure to make an already unpopular Obamacare repeal process absolutely toxic, such as make increasingly severe cuts to Medicaid that would disproportionately affect the poor and elderly. In other words, while this act would continue the health care system’s disproportionate cruelty toward women and communities of color if enacted, it would also hit the so-called white working class. Former President Barack Obama was right when he condemned the bill in a Facebook post. "The Senate bill, unveiled today, is not a health care bill," he wrote. "It’s a massive transfer of wealth from middle-class and poor families to the richest people in America."

Four GOP senators — Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah, and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — also registered their opposition to the bill shortly after its publication, but let’s see if they actually vote against it. On that note, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell isn’t sure if the bill has the 50 votes necessary to pass yet, but he is trying to rush that vote to happen before July 4, when the Senate leaves for a recess. Senators usually have town halls during this time, but no Republicans have any scheduled at the moment. Whether Republicans even expect to face accountability from their voters after writing this bill therefore remains an open question.

Should I be paying attention to this?

Undoubtedly. It’s worth noting that the Senate bill preserves the Obamacare provision that allows people to remain on their parental health insurance until the age of 26. But young people are generally the folks who get pregnant in this world. If you’re poor and need an abortion in a Trumpcare America, you might be in trouble. There’s plenty of culture candy in the bill for Republicans and their voters, including a defunding of Planned Parenthood for one year. The 13 white men in the Senate who crafted the bill are surely excited about that. (It’s also worth keeping in mind that passing the bill through reconciliation means the bill's provisions have to be primarily budgetary in nature, something that may jeopardize the Republican plan to pass the bill with a simple majority of their 52 senators. Cutting off all federal funding for a health provider that has broken no laws in the course of providing reproductive care to millions of women and men is hardly a fiscal priority.)

Medicaid also helps a lot of pregnant women, but they aren't the only young people affected by the prospect of severe cuts. Children in special education programs, the disabled, and those struggling with opioid addiction will also suffer. Also, the bill’s headlining act — Medicaid cuts — are severe, but gradual. Assuming a Democratic fix to a Republican health care bill won’t come until they eventually regain power, young voters need to understand that this is an attack on a system upon which they’ll eventually depend.

We’ll find out just how many Americans would be kicked off their health insurance plans by the Senate bill once the Congressional Budget Office issues its evaluation next week. Twenty-three million people would be uninsured by 2026 as a result of the House bill that passed in May (and there’s little reason to believe that the Senate bill will have more “heart,” as Trump recently requested). The oldest millennials will be in sight of 50 by the time that happens. It will be curious to see whether the president supports a bill that would violate his most essential promises on health care — including cutting billions from Medicaid, which he said that he wouldn't touch.

But aside from the legislation itself, we should also be alarmed by McConnell’s willingness to pervert the typical legislative process, and his success in doing so. Republicans hid this bill from Americans not to avoid having it bartered through the press, but because they are trying to hide a fundamental agenda that predates Trumpism: the elimination of programs for the poor to pay for massive tax cuts for the wealthy. Republicans not only want to fundamentally remake American society in their own image, but are also willing to corrupt small-d democratic norms to do it. If that’s OK with you, stay silent.

Tapes or no tapes?

Days after firing FBI director James Comey in early May, the president of the United States threatened him on Twitter. “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” exclaimed @realDonaldTrump. It was always pretty clear that Trump’s threat was an empty one meant to intimidate Comey — yet it had the opposite effect, encouraging the former director to tell the New York Times about the private memos he wrote about the president’s efforts to influence him and obstruct the investigation into Michael Flynn. In turn, those memos appear to have provoked the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to investigate Russia’s interference in our elections and any connections to the Trump campaign. In that respect, it’s probably the stupidest and most important tweet that Donald Trump has ever published.

Ever since he wrote it, the president, his administration, and his party have kept the drama going about these supposed tapes by continuing to promise to respond to the question of their existence once and for all. On Thursday, Trump ended the suspense, naturally, with two tweets.

Should I be paying attention to this?

That’s a big question. Trump is rash and impulsive, so it’s unwise to subscribe to the “Trump did X to distract from the real story, which is Y” theory. But the timing of these tweets — hours after the phenomenally unpopular Senate health care bill was publicly published for the first time — seems convenient. Also, Thursday's tweets begged the question of why Trump sent that "Comey better hope" tweet at all.

The president answered that question in a Friday morning interview on his favorite "news" show, Fox & Friends, in which he copped to using the tweet to influence Comey's testimony.

"When he found out that there may be tapes out there — whether it’s governmental tapes or anything else, and who knows — I think his story may have changed,” said Trump to interviewer Ainsley Earhardt. “You’ll have to take a look at that because then he has to tell what actually took place at the events. And my story didn’t change — my story was always a straight story, my story always was the truth. But you’ll have to determine for yourself whether or not his story changed, but I did not tape.”

Since Fox News is our de facto state media now, Earhardt then complimented the president on his attempt at scaring Comey into changing his story. "It wasn’t very stupid, I can tell you that," he replied.

Another interesting aspect about his “admission,” if you can call it that, is that the president of the United States is implying that someone may have taped his conversations with Comey without his knowledge. That seems like a rather massive implication.

Optimally, the American public wouldn't see its president squander whatever credibility he has with a steady flow of misleading and false statements. We're well past the point of being able to believe a word that Trump says. It'll be up to investigators, preferably independent ones, to ascertain whether he's lying about the existence of the tapes. But that this all led him to a bold-faced admission of witness intimidation is surely something that is worthy of note. Particularly to the president's attorneys.